By Ben Joravsky

The opening ceremony for the new Mayfair library branch ought to be one of those photo opportunities politicians love to attend–a chance to show residents and voters that they’ve done something good.

Instead, the June 29 ceremony might turn out to be an embarrassment. Since library commissioner Mary Dempsey has decided to bar a representative of the North River Commission from speaking, the group intends to hold its own “People’s Celebration.”

Dempsey says she’s simply following the precedent set by other library openings. “If you allowed everyone to speak who wants to speak, we’d be there for a long time,” says Dempsey. “But we try to acknowledge everyone in our speeches, so someone will acknowledge them [North River Commission].”

But North River Commission officials say they deserve at least a minute or two of speaking time, since without their efforts there would be no new branch. “We’re not asking to make a major oration,” says Dale Bolling, a longtime commission member. “This may seem petty to some, but it’s important for volunteers to get credit for their energy and time. Why have these ceremonies if you’re not going to let the community speak?”

The new library is part of a larger redevelopment of the old Bankers Life & Casualty complex at the intersection of Lawrence and Elston, which was vacated several years ago. “You’re talking about a huge complex–25 buildings covering a half mile of land,” says Joseph Cicero, North River Commission’s executive director. “When Bankers left we lost 1,000 jobs and we were left with a huge hole in the heart of our neighborhood.”

So in 1994 the North River Commission persuaded the city’s Department of Planning to award them a $30,000 grant to help round up developers and draft a development plan. For the next few months they interviewed developers and potential tenants before settling on a proposal put forth by Pontarelli Builders.

“We had a specific vision for the corner,” says Bolling. “We wanted to produce as many jobs as had left. We wanted some kind of housing, we wanted shopping, and we wanted at least one public facility that would draw people and serve the community.”

As part of its plan Pontarelli demolished the main Bankers building and built 36 condos and a large senior-citizen complex; the company also moved its headquarters to the site, brought in a bank and a Mexican restaurant, and built a 12,000-square-foot shopping center, anchored by a health clinic.

“Pontarelli said to us, ‘As a token of appreciation, what can we do for you?'” says Cicero. “We said, ‘How about a library?'”

The old community library had long since run out of space, and the neighborhood had been unsuccessfully pleading with the central office to build a new branch for years. “The library was a public payback in the best sense of the word–recognition to the community for getting them involved in a great project,” says Cicero. “I remember when they said they would do it. It was at a public meeting in about February 1995. Alderman [Margaret] Laurino was there, and she said she would help negotiate a lease between Pontarelli and Mary Dempsey. We said fine.”

In the ensuing months a lease was signed, the new library was built, books were moved, and the central office sent out notices announcing the opening celebration.

“When we heard about the opening, we called the local librarian and asked to participate, and she told us the affair was being managed by the downtown branch,” says Cicero. “She directed me to a supervisor, who directed me to another supervisor, who told me, ‘Well, as you know, if your community group had anything to do with this library, [Dempsey] would love to acknowledge it in her speech. But we don’t allow outsiders to participate in our ceremonies.’ I said, ‘Who are you calling an outsider? This is our neighborhood; we’re not the outsiders.’ She said, ‘Take it up with the commissioner.'”

On May 10 Bolling and two other North River Commission members (Anthony Watrobinski and James Smith) wrote Dempsey a letter that began: “Word on you is that you’re tough and smart. And that you stick to your guns when you think you’re right. We like to believe that we aspire to the same good qualities, therefore, let’s resolve a minor dispute before it escalates into a confrontation that will make us both look silly.”

The letter went on to describe North River Commission’s role in the larger effort to redevelop the site and to ask that Bolling be allowed to speak for two or three minutes. “[Bolling’s] mission is to give volunteers their due, especially when their work results in a marked improvement for the community,” said the letter, which concluded with a mild threat: “Absent hearing from you in 10 days, we [have] no choice but to sponsor a People’s Celebration simultaneously and in competition to your opening. This is, after all, our community and our work that you are celebrating.”

A few days later Cicero called Dempsey. “Dempsey came on the phone with an icy hostility that was incredible,” says Cicero. “She said she’d have somebody acknowledge our group. I said, ‘Mary, doesn’t it bother you that there were people who helped make this happen who aren’t getting to speak?’ She said, ‘I don’t know about that.'”

Dempsey has a slightly different account of events. She says it was Cicero who was hostile. Besides, she says, she was unaware of any role played by North River Commission in building the new library until she read Bolling’s letter.

“I was quite taken aback and surprised by the tone of the letter–it was somewhat demanding,” says Dempsey. “When I got a phone call from Mr. Cicero, which was somewhat strident on his part, I was rather surprised. Frankly, I had never even heard of the North River Commission. While I certainly do not in any way want to disparage any involvements they had in the larger Pontarelli development–and I’m sure they were involved in that–with regard to the library itself we worked with the people we always work with. And that’s the local Friends of the Library group.”

Customarily speeches at library openings are limited to those delivered by a few library officials, the leader of the local Friends group, and elected officials, Dempsey says. “We’re trying to be as evenhanded about this as we can be. But [Cicero] is being very excited about this. I don’t know why. It’s a library opening. It should be a happy thing for everybody. No one is not recognizing the work of North River Commission. We have already agreed to identify them along with other groups. As a matter of course, we thank from the stage everyone who had anything to do with the project–and that includes the guy who donates the doughnuts–because we don’t want to leave anyone out.”

Furthermore Dempsey and the local library advisory group question the amount of credit North River Commission actually deserves. Cheryl Anne Flood, president of Friends of the Mayfair Branch, says, “The process to get a branch is time-consuming and involves many different volunteers. North River did get involved in the project for the whole property, but they were not the force behind this library. I have files of letters going back for years to all sorts of officials on this. I remember walking through that very site with library officials as long ago as 1993. As we speak volunteers are feverishly shelving books. They are retirees, and they have to pack up books and unpack them and shelve them. They deserve credit too. And I will thank them in my speech. But I don’t think all of them are asking to speak at the ceremony.”

Flood, North River Commission officials counter, misses the point. “Of course the Friends group was trying to get a new library for this neighborhood,” says Bolling. “But they were unsuccessful in those efforts until we came to an agreement with Pontarelli.”

Pontarelli officials declined to publicly comment about the matter. But one behind-the-scenes source very close to the development plan seconds North River Commission’s accounts.

In any event it’s not unusual for the library to allow a long lineup of people to speak at openings, says Cicero. As evidence he points to last year’s opening ceremony for the Independence branch, which featured ten speakers, including a congressman, a state senator, two state representatives, two aldermen, and three library system employees (one of whom got to speak twice).

In protest North River Commission is moving ahead with plans for the “People’s Celebration” on June 29. “It will be at 10:30, one half hour before the other celebration, in the parking lot across the street from the library at Kostner and Lawrence,” says Bolling. “We’ve invited Ms. Dempsey and all the library board members to attend. If they want to they can even give a speech.”

Star Power

If Paul Beatty were Jewish, critics would be comparing him to a young Philip Roth or Joseph Heller. But Beatty–a precocious wisecracker who’s a little too smart for his own good and unafraid to bare the most intimate foibles of family, friends, and community–is a 33-year-old black writer.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, is a hilarious satire of everything from racist white cops to the hip-hop scene. The book tells the story of Gunnar Kaufman, a young black poet, whose mother moves him from a white, middle-class suburban neighborhood to the “hood” because she thinks he’s being deprived of black experiences. From there Gunnar gets caught up in basketball, gangs, riots, hip-hop poetry, you name it. The book spins a bit out of control toward the end, like much of Heller and Roth’s work, but it’s a great ride.

Clearly talented, Beatty’s at the start of what might be a brilliant career. He’ll read from his book Friday at 7 PM at Another Level at Literary Explosion Books, 1570 1/2 N. Damen. There’s a $5 donation at the door; portions of the proceeds will go to the Writer’s Voice, a writing and reading program sponsored by the Duncan YMCA. “I loved his book,” says poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt, director of Writer’s Voice. “It’s funny, incisive, and he spares no one. He has a complex, late-90s point of view, as if he’s saying there are no easy answers to problems about race. I see him as a voice for a new generation of writers.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Dale Bolling by Randy Tunnell.