When the Wilmington branch of the Los Angeles Public Library opened in 1927, city officials expected there would be branches in virtually every neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Many people walked to the modest, five-room building, which was erected in a residential neighborhood on West Opp Street. Those who drove parked on the street. A parking lot was never seriously considered.
Since then, Wilmington has grown from an outpost of 20,000 people to an industrial community three times that size. New neighborhoods have been born, but new libraries have not followed. Changing city priorities and the belief that an increasingly mobile population requires fewer libraries left the growing community with just one branch--and no parking lot.
"The community has been very tolerant," said Janine Goodale, senior librarian at the 3,700-square-foot library. "It is a very crowded library. When you consider the size of the population, it is ridiculous."
Beginning of Change
Today, things will begin to change.
At 10 a.m. city officials will hold a ground-breaking ceremony for a $2.2-million library at 1300 N. Avalon Blvd., in the heart of the community's commercial district. The new library, which will replace the antiquated West Opp Street building, has been hailed as a cultural milestone for the predominantly low-income community, whose residents frequently complain that they do not receive a fair share of city services.
"The ground breaking for the library signals an important highlight in the history of the community," said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who promised to build a new library in Wilmington when she first ran for City Council in 1981. "The new library will be the center for culture and learning."
Plans for the library, which the City Council approved in 1981, have been fraught with bureaucratic delays. At least six city departments got involved with the project after the council set aside federal funding for it. Delays involved everything from property owners who were reluctant to sell land for the building, to concerns that the contractor meet the city's affirmative action requirements.
Architectural drawings of the 10,800-square-foot building, three times larger than the existing library, were sent back and forth between the architect and city engineers at least six times before a final version was approved, one city official said.
"If there was a delay possible, it generally happened," said Nelson Hernandez, Flores' Wilmington deputy. "We had to wait awhile for it, but that means we will savor it that much more."
Dozens of residents are expected to attend the ceremonies today, which will include music by the Banning High School Ensemble Band, but some still are skeptical about the project.
"A lot of people are saying that they won't believe it until they see it," said Sara Mota, president of the Friends of the Wilmington Library, a volunteer support group at the library. "People have been waiting a long time for this."
Among Oldest Branches
The Wilmington branch on West Opp is one of the oldest branch libraries in the 62-branch city library system. The stucco, Spanish-style building was constructed of unreinforced masonry, meaning it had been targeted along with numerous other city structures for replacement because of potential earthquake risks.
In recent years, the neighborhood around the library has declined. At one point, vagrants staked out the roof as a favorite resting spot, and some residents complained that they were afraid to visit the building. New security measures have addressed those problems, but residents still complain that they cannot find a place to park in the congested neighborhood.
Once inside the building, some library patrons say, it is impossible to study. Cramped quarters have children and adult areas side-by-side, and with librarians assisting patrons, it is nearly impossible to find a quiet area, they say. Residents also complain that seating--there are 36 chairs--is inadequate.
Mota, an outspoken supporter of the library, said most of her nine children used the library in Carson when they were in school because the Wilmington facility was inadequate. The library is so small, she said, that the Friends of the Wilmington Library holds meetings away from the building.
"The place is packed all of the time," said Joanna Johnson, assistant director of the 62 branches. "Last year, it was ranked 30th in terms of circulation. Considering that it is one of the smallest branches in the system with a very poor location, that shows a very good activity. It is ahead of many branches that have far more adequate facilities."
The new library, to be built by John R. Hundley Construction Co. of Downey, builders of the Pasadena city library, will have seating for 60 people, a public meeting room and an adjacent 45-space parking lot. A spokeswoman for Hundley said construction is scheduled to begin June 8, with the building opening to the public about one year later.
Librarian Goodale said the new building will house the library's 30,000-volume collection, which includes the third largest Spanish collection in the city, and will be big enough to expand by about 20,000 volumes.
"Right now we can't build the collection because it is so crowded," she said. "It is practically one book in, one book out. Once we open the new building, I expect there will be an increase in demand, so I expect they will give me some more money to buy more books."
Above all, Mota said, the new library will provide a source of pride in the community as well as a constructive outlet for children.
"We need positive things for our youth," she said. "We need things that are going to feed their minds."