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Thursday, December 7

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Column Fri May 08 2009

Flooding the Lines for a Flooded Library

Editor's Note: This article was submitted by Chris Gray, an independent journalist in Chicago.

They're calling it a telephone blitz. The Altgeld Gardens Housing Project has been without its public library for almost two months and lifelong resident and activist Cheryl Johnson has had enough.

Her environmental justice group, People for Community Recovery, is trying to set up a day when the whole neighborhood calls up the city of Chicago's complaint hotline, 311, as well as Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), demanding that someone reopen the library at 132nd Place and Ellis Avenue in the Far South Side housing project.

"We're going to flood his office, interrupt his day, because we need to have our library reopened," Johnson said.

The library itself took on water when some of the plumbing broke, causing extensive water damage, library officials said. The Chicago Public Library closed the Altgeld branch on March 12, moving its librarians and computers out.

"It didn't look like anything was damaged, luckily," said Ruth Lednicer, the marketing director at the Chicago Public Library. "There's some pretty major repairs that the CHA will have to do."

The Chicago Housing Authority owns the library building, along with most of the housing project, but CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar said the authority is still assessing the situation and determing what repairs need to be made.

Johnson said the residents have been left in the dark about the library's repairs and no word has been given on when it might re-open. She said the building also had been poorly maintained and left to deterioriate.

The library served as the only place for many Altgeld residents to get Internet access, and her office has been allowing people to check e-mail or quickly browse the Web. Already living in an isolated area, the residents of Altgeld Gardens must now travel to 110th Street and Indiana to visit the Pullman library.

"You can always get the sky is falling routine," said Alderman Beale. "They're still trying to determine what the repairs will be and what funding will need to be allocated... Unfortunately, that's the bureaucracy."

"Any library is critical to any community," he said, adding he hoped to get some "shovel-ready" money from the federal stimulus package to pay for the repairs or potentially build a new library.

The current library was opened in 1996 after President Obama's former community organizing group, Developing Communities Project, helped gather neighborhood support and library funds. The library was a significant upgrade from the 9 foot by 11 foot reading room Altgeld had been relying upon.

"The library was so small. There's over 4,000 residents out there," said Debra Strickland, a former executive director of Developing Communities Project, who led the organization to get the current library. She joined the group as Obama was leaving for law school. "It really helped in terms of providing education needs."

Everett Johnson, 12, a 5th-grader at Carver Elementary in Altgeld Gardens, said he especially hopes the library will reopen in time for the summer reading program, which he really enjoys. Up until the closing, he spent a few afternoons each week at the library, reading and playing on the Internet.

"It's a loss of opportunity for the children to learn something, to communicate with the outside world," said Michael Brown, an unemployed man visiting family at Altgeld last week. "Two hours that a kid could get in trouble is two hours a kid could spend in a library."

Beale said he wished the library could open tomorrow, but the repairs are extensive. He hadn't spoken with the CHA recently, but he said the last time he did they still hadn't located the source of the water leak.

He also noted that Altgeld Gardens is in the middle of a $441 million rehabilitation, and he recently secured $31 million in federal stimulus money to speed the renovation along.

"We're spending a lot of money in Altgeld," Beale said.

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