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Oakland Poets and Activists Wake an Abandoned Library From Its Slumber

By Harriet Staff

Don’t know if you had your eye on Occupy Oakland last week, but if you did! You must have noticed that activists and community members occupied a long-neglected, historic library and brought it so back from blight that it now has over 25 book categories and neighborhood children hoping to turn some of its back lot into a community garden. Details from Hyphenated-Republic:

On Monday morning, in the first recent action of its kind, anti-austerity, Occupy activists and radical librarians converged on a newly opened derelict building in the Fruitvale district and began to stock it with books. The building at 15th and Miller Avenue had been a library for over six decades, then an alternative continuation school founded by radical Chicano activists, and an adjunct to a halfway house across the street; but it had been abandoned for over a decade since. The libary was part of a national set of Carnegie grant donations, still known for their architectural beauty; the building remains in the National Registry of Historic Places. But long years of absolute neglect have meant a decaying facade. A crumbling barbed wire fence keeps families and children from using the green space on the building’s grounds, and for years has created a dark corner where drug-addicted people and street sex workers escaping police harassment have sought refuge; not surprisingly, and with other things on their minds, they left a pretty foul mess inside and out, that the city had little interest in addressing.

That all changed on Monday morning. Having gained access to the building and grounds, the main gate mysteriously moved aside and the door wide open, activists and community members spent hours cleaning the built-up and stagnant refuse of the forgotten interior’s accumulated detritus. Others brought milk-crates full of books and stocked the shelves, still in place over forty years after the building had ceased being a library. The call out to resurrect the library brought more books; one activist estimated that there were well over a thousand books on the shelves, sorted by author and subject—non fiction, fiction, young adult, children’s, poetry and Spanish language. Activists suffered under no delusions about the permanency of their act—they realized that at any moment the police could arrive and evict them…

The photographs taken of the process are astonishing (many taken by unofficial Bay favorite poet-photographer Andrew Kenower), and more can be seen along with updates at the Tumblr for the Victor Martinez People’s Library in Fruitvale, East Oakland.

Not surprisingly, poets were in the mix, and have been holding nightly potlucks and readings. Not all did go smoothly, however, as expected. But: “What did surprise activists was its quickness; less than an hour after a rousing inaugural potluck and poetry reading and the ground-breaking of a community garden bottom-lined by the neighborhood’s children, police cordoned off four square blocks around the library. Dozens of squad cars descended on the neighborhood; police threatened those inside with arrest and gave them scant time to rescue the books and leave the area.” Activists got back up the next day, and have been there since, organizing everything on the sidewalk, with much police presence. The SF Bay Guardian wrote on Friday:

Now, it’s been a week, and what organizer Jaime Yassin calls “the only 24-hour library in the US” is still here.

“That was on their agenda, at some point, to do this. What the people are doing now,” said Emji Spero, a poet who heard about the action from people invovled in Monday’s poetry reading. “But instead, they’re spending money on police to come shut it down. Someone said to me, I can see the dollar signs floating off the police cars as they run their engines.”

“This is the social reform that the city is supposed to be doing,” said Khalid Shakur, another Oakland resident who was involved in setting up the library.

On Wednesday Yassin, who had been researching the building’s history, sat down with me on a couch by the library. He explained that the clean sidewalk where the couch now sits was an unofficial garbage dump days earlier, covered in old clothes, drug paraphenalia, and other trash.

Yassin showed me a 2005 report from the Urban Ecology 23rd Avenue Working Group. the plan, a result of focus groups and surveys of people in the neighborhood of the People’s Library, includes a plan to “rehabilitate Miller Library” as a top priority for beneficial development in the neighborhood.

“Renovation, however, will be expensive and require the city’s help,” the report reads. “the city-owned library needs seismic reinforcement, repair to flood damage, asbestos removal and handicap accesibility improvements.”

Keep up with things as they unfold at the Facebook page or on Twitter. And if you’re in the Bay area, you can make your way to 1449 Miller Ave., Oakland, CA.

Posted in Poetry News on Monday, August 20th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.