Jane Byrne was mayor when the city first promised the residents of West Garfield Park a renovated library.

That was in 1979 and the West Garfield Park facility–the Legler Library, at 115 S. Pulaski–was in lousy condition. Today, conditions are not much better (despite $100,000 in makeshift improvements): the branch is marred by peeling paint, broken plaster, scattered debris, and a leaky roof. The branch hasn’t the money to hire the staff, so most of its rooms are locked, giving the once elegant 1920s structure an eerie feeling, with rows of dusty bookshelves standing empty.

Four mayoral administrations later, the community is still waiting on the city to make good on Byrne’s promise. The library board has allocated about $3.5 million for renovations, which finally should begin sometime this year. But there’s no money for a temporary facility! West Garfield Park will have to make do without any library at all during the two years it takes to renovate Legler.

“This is a colossal waste of space and resources,” says Sheila Radford-Hill, a longtime resident of the community. “We have this beautiful building gathering dust. It’s a library that’s fallen on hard times and has been pretty much ignored by the system. And now they want us to go without any library. They’ve promised to send a bookmobile around, but that’s no substitution. This whole thing has been a disgrace.”

Radford-Hill and other neighborhood activists are fighting. They want to see a renovated library linked with nearby schools to form a “cultural corridor to the community.” To meet this end, they’ve enlisted Bethel New Life, a not-for-profit social service and community development group of which Radford-Hill is an officer, as well as several business leaders. They’ve formed Friends of the Legler Library, and they hope to raise at least $25,000 to establish a temporary library. So far, however, they’ve had little luck.

“In many ways what’s happened to Legler parallels the overall disinvestment of this neighborhood,” says Radford-Hill. “From 1979, when Bethel started, we’ve lost an average of 20,000 units of housing a year. A lot of it is from lack of investment. This is a poor community, and many buildings are just falling apart.”

The area–roughly bounded on the east by Hamlin, on the west by Cicero, on the south by Harrison, and on the north by Kinzie–is now predominantly black and poor. More than half of its residents receive some sort of public assistance. When Radford-Hill was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the community was still mostly middle-class and white.

“We live in a city where the economic buying power of the white community far exceeds that of the black community–it’s a fact,” says Radford-Hill. “But the change here didn’t have to be so drastic. A major factor were the blockbusting real estate salesmen. I remember that in 1965 there was wave after wave of panic peddlers who were scaring whites out of here. People were getting calls in the middle of the night. It happened in other neighborhoods, too–a total transformation of a community.”

The 1968 riots hit hard at the Madison Street business district that runs through the heart of West Garfield Park.

“The riots were a symptom–not a cause,” says Robbie Jacquette, a community organizer for Bethel. “I can remember when Madison was a bustling business strip. We had a Goldblatt’s on the corner. That was before the malls, and people still walked to stores to do their shopping. There’s still a lot of need for walk-in business around here. This is a poor neighborhood. People can’t travel far to do their shopping.”

In the last few years, the area has come back some. Bethel renovated the Guyon, a former hotel that is now an apartment house. A shoe store has moved into the Goldblatt’s. And there is a thriving shopping strip about a half block east of the Pulaski-Madison intersection. Local residents had hoped that the library would spark even more investment.

“You can’t overestimate the importance of public institutions in a low-income neighborhood,” says Radford-Hill. “This library–in as bad shape as it is–runs adult education classes and literacy programs. It serves 354 schools. There’s classes coming here all during the week. The library offers a way out for people who can’t read to get a job, for people whose kids are falling further and further behind in school. Its cultural life gives students a sense of their heritage. It gives people a little hope. Low-income communities receive the least adequate services. Those who need it the most get it the least.”

By the 1970s, Legler was in dire need of rehabilitation. As the facility deteriorated, fewer people went there.

“It had been a regional library, which means it has more space and is supposed to serve a larger community,” says Barbara Brown, assistant to the children’s librarian at the Legler branch. “But circulation started falling, and the library system allocates funds according to circulation.”

In 1975, Legler was downgraded to the status of a neighborhood branch. That meant a cut in its operating budget. Fewer books were bought. Back copies of magazines and newspapers were no longer stored. Staff was transferred. The mezzanine and second floor were closed off. A computer room was closed because there was no staff to operate it (the computers remain, though they are not used).

“I think you can see what it used to be like,” says Brown, standing in the marble-tiled lobby. “This is an elegant building. I can only imagine what it would look like all spruced up.”

After a visit to the community, Byrne promised to set aside funds for renovation. At one point, money for the project was actually in the city’s budget. Then–without an explanation–the money was spent on something else.

“The rumor was that the money was spent on snow removal,” says Radford-Hill. “That has never been substantiated. But I can believe it. Those were the days of the wild west in City Hall–there wasn’t much accounting for funds.”

Mayor Harold Washington also made a trip to the library, and promised funds to restore it. To keep the pressure on, the Friends of the Legler Library voiced their concerns at several library board meetings. They won a partial victory in 1985, when the board allocated $350,000 to fix the leaky roof and other housing code violations. But there was no money, the board said, for a complete renovation.

The situation changed in 1987, when Library Commissioner John Duff convinced the city to sell bonds to undergo a multimillion-dollar neighborhood branch renovation program. Renovation of Legler was targeted for 1990, and then came the shocker: the library would be closed throughout.

“I don’t know why there were delays in the past–that was before Commissioner Duff was in charge,” says Wilfredo Cruz, a library spokesman. “We’re committed to renovating Legler; we’ve made the money available. But it’s going to take time. This is not just patchwork. We used to try to renovate these buildings in stages, keeping one part open while we renovated the other part. But you can’t do that anymore. You have too much dust and there is asbestos in the basement you have to remove. You can’t have people on the site.”

The outraged community demanded a temporary facility. “We didn’t work hard all these years to lose our library altogether,” says Radford-Hill. “Lakeview got a temporary facility when they were getting their library renovated. We feel the system can come up with some sort of alternative plan.”

But the money for the Lakeview facility came from a separate city account, and 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen was able to wangle it only because at the time Mayor Harold Washington was trying to line Hansen up politically.

“I feel for these people, but we just don’t have the money,” says Cruz. “A temporary site costs about $700,000. You have to move the books; you have to prepare the new building. Sometimes you have to bring it up to code. And then you have to move all the books back. You just can’t go into someone’s house and say, ‘Here’s your library.'”

In the library board’s defense, there are other communities making the same demands as the residents of West Garfield Park.

“The North-Pulaski Library at 4041 W. North Ave. was recently destroyed by a fire,” says Cruz. “The residents there want a temporary library while we build a new one. And we had to tell them the same thing we told Legler: There’s no money.”

The Friends of Legler note that the last city budget allocated about $3 million for temporary libraries. But most of that money will be spent on the downtown facility–now stored in a brick building behind the Merchandise Mart–while a permanent library is being built in the South Loop.

“Everybody wants a library close to them,” says a library official. “They’ll say, ‘We can’t go to that library in the other neighborhood because we’ll have to walk through rival gang territory.’ It’s a shame. But what can we do? We can’t build a library on every block.”

The Friends of Legler would like to open a temporary site at a closed bank at Pulaski and Madison. The bank building’s owner has tentatively agreed to offer them rent-free space. The $25,000 or more the Friends want to raise could be spent on transforming the bank into a temporary library.

It’s still a long shot. West Garfield Park is poor; it can’t raise that kind of money on its own. Aside from Bethel, not many local organizations have connections to the city’s corporate community. As it stands now, the residents of West Garfield Park will just have to wait for their library.

“It’s just another struggle in the inner city–you see so much of it you don’t get depressed,” says Radford-Hill. “I remain hopeful. It’s just a shame. Everybody talks about improving the schools. And here’s a poor community with literacy problems that wants to get a library, and we aren’t getting much help.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.