Over the past two weeks an impromptu library has sprung up on the location of the former Latin American Library in the Fruitvale district. A group of nearly fifteen people, including a few Occupy Oakland protesters and several community members, have been loaning out books, constructing planters for gardening and holding community meetings.
The library was closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, although the structure was later used as a school called the Emiliano Zapata Academy. But for the past ten years the property remained abandoned and is considered unsafe. Currently, the nearest open public library is almost a mile away.
In the early morning hours of August 13, a contingent of Occupy Oakland members took over the library building, which is located at E. 15th Street and Miller Avenue. Volunteers began cleaning up the building and grounds as others filled shelves with books. The group also renamed the building, calling it “The Victor Martinez People’s Library” after the late Latino poet.
“Our goal was to put the books in, get the banner up, to propagate in people’s minds that this was something that they could do,” said Jaime Omar Yassin, a community activist and Occupy member who lives in the neighborhood. “They could just take this building over if it’s not being used correctly.”
According to Yassin, prior to the group’s arrival, the property was occupied primarily by sex workers and drug addicts. While cleaning the building, they found old mattresses along with “a sharps bin full of needles,” he said.
But hours after the group occupied the building, police officers arrived and asked them to vacate the premises, saying the building needed seismic retrofitting and was not safe for use, according to Yassin. The group complied and the front door was then boarded up by city workers, he said.
The protesters then set up shop on the sidewalk on Miller Avenue in front of the property. A week later they moved their library onto the back lawn.
On Tuesday morning, Yassin casually stepped through a hole in the chain-link fence surrounding the old library building and walked onto the grounds, just as he had done throughout the past week. Scores of books, many of which came from the library that had been set up in downtown Oakland during last fall’s Occupy protests, sat on shelves lined up against the abandoned building. Some chairs and a small table sat under a tree and, across the yard, a series of planter boxes where rows of collard greens, lettuce and chives were sprouting.
The group has also been receiving book donations by mail. At one point during the day a UPS package arrived containing three children’s books—one written in Vietnamese and the other two in Spanish. Some supporters also sent postcards. One was postmarked Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and encouraged participants to “Keep up the great work!”
Over the next hour, a few people from the neighborhood wandered in to browse books and say hello. Liliana Macedonio, 26, who lives less than a block away, brought her three children to play as she sold popsicles on E. 15th Street. “We want this to be open,” she said, referring to the outdoor library. Otherwise, she said, “it’s very far to go get a book for our children.”
Alex Lujano, 50, lives just down the street and has been an active member of the library project since its inception. He said he was not involved in community activism prior to the library occupation, but he supports this project because he believes his neighborhood needs a safe place for kids to play. Children often come by to read books and play games, such as a board game called “Anti-Monopoly.”
Lujano said he plans to appeal to the city council to reopen the building and allow them to use it, not only as a library, but also for day care services and English language classes. In the meantime he plans to support this impromptu library. “I believe it’s a great opportunity for those of us who live in the neighborhood,” Lujano said.
But not everyone supports the group’s endeavors. Pastor Lambert Simmons leads the Agnes Memorial Church of God in Christ, located across the street from the property. A pastor there since 1984, Simmons said he was concerned about the example that the group is setting for young people in the area, because they entered the property illegally and are using it without permission.
“I believe everything needs to be done decently and in order,” he said. “We don’t need any more law-breaking. That’s a bad example to the kids in the neighborhood. You just don’t be trespassing on people’s property.”
When asked why police evicted the protesters from the building earlier in the week, District 5 councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said by telephone Wednesday afternoon, “It’s a public facility that we are responsible for. Even if we agree with the message, we cannot allow that to happen.”
De La Fuente said a compromise allowing the group to use the outdoor grounds as a community space could “possibly” be worked out if they apply for a permit.
On Tuesday afternoon, at around 1:00 pm, three Oakland police officers accompanied city workers, who closed the hole Yassin had so effortlessly used to enter the premises just a few hours before. An officer assured Yassin that their “goal [was] to not destroy the garden” and that they were “not trying to do anything with the books.”
The protesters voluntarily left the library grounds when they saw the officers walking up. They decided to bring the library onto the sidewalk on E. 15th Street between two garden planters they had built days earlier.
Later that night, approximately fifteen neighbors gathered on the street nearby to decide next steps. They plan to hold meetings every Tuesday at 5:30 pm to brainstorm new ideas for the project.
Meanwhile, Occupy Seattle has followed Fruitvale’s example and began their own “People’s Library” in front of their main library—which has been closed temporarily due to budget cuts—though Yassin said there is minimal communication between the two groups.
“We were excited about the fact that we inspired them to do it,” he said.