Residents of the North Lawndale Homeowners Association won a hard-fought victory in 2018 when they convinced city leaders to renovate their dilapidated neighborhood library.
But just a few years after the city invested $2.15 million to fix the water damage, rodent infestation and mold problems at Douglass Branch Library, 3353 W. 13th St., the building is once again in a sorry state due to deferred repairs and maintenance.
Countless soggy books have been taken off the shelves, and water damage has caused many of the bookshelves to collapse. The excess moisture has also created conditions for mold to thrive once again in the building, especially in the event space in the basement, said Dinita Robinson, a resident and member of the North Lawndale Homeowner’s Association.
“You go to utilize the library, but if the spaces are full of mold … then how do you find joy in the place called home?” Robinson said.
After saying the library had deteriorated to the point of being unsafe, the homeowners association recruited Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation in 2018 to push the city to invest in the library. At the time, the building was nearly “uninhabitable,” resident Rochelle Foster previously said.
Their appeals were successful. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a $2.15 million renovation for the library July 2018, and construction to fix the library’s issues began that fall. When it reopened in 2019, it had a contemporary look and feel, a new YOUmedia music recording studio, two 3D printers and an upgraded auditorium.
But recently, neighbors and librarians noticed water seeping into the building again.
Staff members at the Douglass Branch Library have repeatedly filed complaints about mold and water damage in the building but the reports have gone unanswered, said Matthew Lange, a staff representative for the library’s union, AFSCME Local 1215. Maintenance issues and staff complaints are often addressed “only when there’s threats to contact our union or agencies such as OSHA,” he said.
Neighbors said they feel shortchanged by the library investment. The city’s repairs to the library should have been “built for longevity” rather than a “really cute band-aid so everybody can smile, but then the band-aid peels back,” Robinson said.
“I felt like it was a slap in the face. It was like taking scraps,” Robinson said. “Every single project that they so-called invest in our community is always second class. … When kids come use the library, they’ll think that’s the library they deserve.”
Part of the issue is there are backlogs of deferred repairs at libraries across the city, said Jacob Cleary, president of the library union and branch manager at the Richard M. Daley Branch Library. Funding for some library projects comes from state grants, so there are “outside factors” that can limit the amount of improvements that happen at one time.
Before the 2018 work, the building, constructed in 1929, was last renovated in 1980.
Now, the city will spent another $1.2 million to install a new roof and waterproof the building to stop the water damage issues, library spokesperson Patrick Molloy said. Work will begin this spring.
“Generations of neighbors, staff and supporters of the Douglass Branch Library have worked hard to ensure that this branch is a modern and welcoming space for the advancement of knowledge and community in the neighborhood,” Molloy said in a statement.
Members of the homeowners association who led the charge to fix the library said they were never informed the building would require additional work to secure it from water damage, or about the upcoming phase of construction. Residents bristled at the lack of transparency and community participation in the redevelopment of Douglass Branch Library.
“That looks like what has always been done to us as a people, as a community,” said Karen Castleberry, a resident and member of the homeowners association. “Residents did say what they wanted. But at the same time, [the city] just did what they wanted to do.”
Scott, the area’s alderman, said there “wasn’t an unlimited amount of money” for library repairs and rehab in 2018.
“I talked to the mayor about that and it did not come to life. I wish we could have a new library as well but the funding was not there,” Scott said. “It’s something I will continue to investigate and take up with the Mayor’s office.”
The continued investment in the Douglass Branch Library is heartening, but the city must do a better job of communicating with residents and involving them in the process, Scott said. The repeated problems the library is having are “not acceptable for the community which I serve and for the taxpayer money we put in,” he said.
Having a quality library in North Lawndale is a priority for neighbors because a library is a lifeline for those who don’t have things like books and computers at home. The library is a gathering place with features like book clubs and workshops that bring residents together and programs to educate local youth. It’s a place where people can access economic opportunity by applying for jobs online or borrowing a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.
For the North Lawndale Homeowners Association, the library is a building that represents the public goods and services that all communities are supposed to be equally distributed, Robinson said.
“The library is a mecca in underprivileged communities. That’s our access to knowledge. That’s our access to a better tomorrow. If we don’t take those things serious enough … it says a lot about what the city feels about the youth that we’re bringing up in our community,” Robinson said.
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