A week after police crack down, People's Library still operating in East Oakland

Reading in the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez before it was re-shuttered by police Monday

by Yael Chanoff | 08.17.12 | 5:26 pm

The building where activists, some from Occupy Oakland, created a free library and garden August 13 was raided by police that night. But that was Monday, this is Friday-- and the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, or People's Library, is still in full form.

The books and garden have moved from the building, which was built in 1918 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, to the sidewalk. But it’s still a lively scene. Books are shelved the block in front of the old library's entrace, and around the corner participants have built gadren beds. In the sidewalk library and garden, children browse books, play chess, dig holes for seeds, water plants, ride bikes and scooters, and casually work on the fence around the building with pliers.

The building at 1449 Miller was donated to the city of Oakland as part of a grant from Andrew Carnegie, and functioned as a library until 1979. It was one of eight libraries closed by the City Librarian following the passage of Prop 13, according to Harry Hamilton, City of Oakland public information officer. It was subsequently used for the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, an alternative high school that now operates on 29th street. It was owned by the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, whose members allocated money to it in their 2005 five-year plan, but no redevelopment of the building had begun when redevelopment agencies across California were dissolved last fall. It is now owned by the the Redevelopment Successor Agency housed within the City of Oakland’s Office of Neighborhood Investment, and, for all official purposes, remains vacant.

On Monday morning, activists entered the building, intent to revitalize it themselves. Empty wooden bookshelves covered the walls, and the floor was strewn with trash. A few mattresses indicated that the officially vacant building certainly hasn’t been.

Those building the People's Library brought in brooms, sponges and trashbags. A few hours later, the place was cleaned up and hundreds of donated books lined the long-empty shelves. Neighbors came in through the open doors, helping to clean, checking out books, and reading to their kids. In the backyard, kids and adults built raised beds and started planting in them.

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.


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