Open the doors, reclaim the commons. This was an abandoned library, now its a reclaimed one.
Where: 1449 Miller Ave, Oakland CA
More info: Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez on Facebook | @bibliotecapopul, #peopleslibrary
The building unveiled August 13th as the Victor Martinez Community Library was part of a Carnegie Foundation endowment of four libraries given to the city of Oakland between 1916 and 1918. Oakland’s librarian at the time, Charles S. Greene, believed that the city’s people would benefit most from libraries placed within their communities.
Despite this vision, the building was one of seven branch casualties of budget cuts in the late seventies, severing vital library life-lines in poor and working communities. From the early 70s untill the late 80s, this building was a school created during the Chicano Movement called the Emiliano Zapata Street academy. Since then, the “Latin American Branch” library building located at the corner of Miller and 15th st. has mostly sat empty, despite the fact that the next nearest library is miles away, and increasingly difficult to access in a city like Oakland with an increasingly expensive transit system. With its eroding chain link fence and decaying, armored exterior, the building is much more than an eyesore; the unused, but inaccessible, space creates a life-draining dark vacuum of stability that serves at best as a convenient place for the unscrupulous to dump their old mattresses, couches and assorted garbage.
This morning, a group of activists opened this building again for use as a library. Inside is the modest seed for a library and community center—hundreds of books donated by people who envision the rebirth of local, community-owned libraries and social and political centers throughout Oakland. We’ve named the building after recently deceased author, Victor Martinez, who overcame a young life of hard agricultural work to become a successful writer in the Bay Area. His semi-autobiographical novel, Parrot in the Oven, has become a seminal work of the Latino experience. Martinez died last year at 56 of an illness caused by his work in the fields.
If you live in this community, we only ask that you think about how you can use this building. Name it anything you like. Purpose it to any goal that benefits the community—library, social or political neighborhood center. All we ask is that you consider keeping it out of the hands of a city which will only seal the fence and doors again, turning the space back into an aggregator of the city’s trash and a dark hole in the middle of an embattled community. The doors here are open. And there are many others simply waiting to be.
Update: Occupy Oakland announces a community potluck at 6pm local time and poetry/spoken word reading at 7pm at the Library tonight! Community members are requesting gardening supplies, trash pick-up, and other help. Check their Twitter account for more
Update, 8/14: Late last night, dozens of Oakland police arrived on scene, confiscated donated books, looked the gates with zip-ties, and boarded up the building to make sure it remains a blighted, decaying building. Thanks for keeping the neighborhood safe, OPD! Community members are meeting to discuss future plans.
By Yael Chanoff, San Francisco Bay Guardian
At 6:30, there was a potluck and a poetry reading. Most families had wandered off by 10pm. At 11:30, about a dozen people remained. That’s when 80 police arrived, blocked off the street for two blocks in all directions, and told them that they had 15 minutes to gather their books and exit the building, or risk arrest.
The creators of the Victor Martinez People’s Library did as they were told. But they didn’t go far. The next morning, they set up the library again, this time on the sidewalk outside the now-boarded up building. The kids and families came back. Police did, too, but they stayed in cars on corners around the building, watching.
Now, it’s been a week, and what organizer Jaime Yassin calls “the only 24-hour library in the US” is still here.
“That was on their agenda, at some point, to do this. What the people are doing now,” said Emji Spero, a poet who heard about the action from people invovled in Monday’s poetry reading. “But instead, they’re spending money on police to come shut it down. Someone said to me, I can see the dollar signs floating off the police cars as they run their engines.”
“This is the social reform that the city is supposed to be doing,” said Khalid Shakur, another Oakland resident who was involved in setting up the library.
On Wednesday Yassin, who had been researching the building’s history, sat down with me on a couch by the library. He explained that the clean sidewalk where the couch now sits was an unofficial garbage dump days earlier, covered in old clothes, drug paraphenalia, and other trash.
Yassin showed me a 2005 report from the Urban Ecology 23rd Avenue Working Group. the plan, a result of focus groups and surveys of people in the neighborhood of the People’s Library, includes a plan to “rehabilitate Miller Library” as a top priority for beneficial development in the neighborhood.
“Renovation, however, will be expensive and require the city’s help,” the report reads. “the city-owned library needs seismic reinforcement, repair to flood damage, asbestos removal and handicap accesibility improvements.”
As I spoke with Yassin, a 10-year-old who had been gardening and playing on the sidewalk scooted up. He handed some scissors, just retrieved from his home a block away, to one of the people making signs to organize the library.
“I never saw nobody use it using it since I got here,” he said when I asked him about the building.
“I liked it when you guys came,” he added to Yassin, smiling, before racing off on his scooter.
Juan Delgadillo, who owns Plaza Automotive, a business across the street from the library, said he plans to borrow some books from the People’s Library. “It’s a very good idea,” said Delgadillo. “I support it.”
The group has been holding nightly potlucks, and is planning to host a community barbecue tomorrow (August 18) at 2pm.