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A Tale of 2 Cities and 3 Libraries

May 30, 1996|SCOTT HARRIS

Been to your local library lately?

Many people have. If you don't live within a few blocks of one, you probably live within a few miles. Staffs have been cut, so the hours aren't what they used to be. Still, there's good news on the knowledge front, such as the three handsome new Los Angeles city libraries in West Hills, Porter Ranch and North Hills, all opened within the last 14 months.

The one in North Hills is, by design, the grandest. Opened March 15, the Mid-Valley Regional Library at 16244 Nordhoff St. is, at 27,000 square feet, the city's second-largest, after the landmark Central Library downtown. Visitors ooh and ahh upon entering, enchanted by the soaring architecture and artwork depicting people in flight, floating dreamlike as they cling to letters. On the rotunda walls are the thoughts of Kafka ("A book must be like an axe for the frozen sea inside us.") and Marx ("Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too hard to read.").

Groucho Marx, that is.

Unfortunately, money for books is tight. As senior librarian Dan Dupill diplomatically puts it, the shelves reveal "plenty of room for growth." Still, it's a busy, bustling place.

"In the first six weeks, we checked more than 70,000 pieces of material," librarian Lesley Alexander says wearily. "That's more than we own."

This library has proven so popular that it's a wonder it wasn't built earlier. And therein lies a tale of the regional politics of Los Angeles, one of particular interest in these days of Valleycentrism and L.A.-bashing.


Think back nearly a decade. In 1987 the Los Angeles Public Library system was in deep trouble. Arson had closed the Central Library and 13 branches were cited for not meeting earthquake codes. Other branches were in need of expansion and a few were operating in small, rented storefronts. Plus, there were those three library-owned parcels in West Hills, Porter Ranch and North Hills awaiting construction money.

To some Valley residents, these lots symbolized City Hall's neglect. Dupill says he's met some local residents who "thought they were going to bring their children here. And they ended up bringing their grandchildren."

Why hadn't these branches been built? Several reasons. Libraries had become an easy target for budget-cutters and the Valley wasn't poor enough to qualify for federal aid. In the 1970s, the library staff included a development director whose job it was to raise private funds. In 1978, things got tougher as Proposition 13 effectively eliminated the fund-raiser's job and, more important, imposed a two-thirds super-majority vote for property tax measures.

In a 1990 article for Library Journal, Robert G. Reagan, the system's public information director, recalled the dark days. From the ashes of the Central Library rose a bond measure conceived by then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. Dubbed Proposition L for obvious reasons, the $88.9-million bond measure would ultimately appear on the November 1988 ballot, promising benefits for all 15 council districts--including those three long-promised Valley branches.

Optimists thought Proposition L might squeak by, given the emotions touched by the Central Library fire. Councilman Nate Holden, known for his contrarian ways, wrote the opposing ballot message.

When the vote was counted, Proposition L proved very popular--and lost. The "yes" vote was 514,588, or 62.4%, and the "no" was 310,385, or 37.6%. (Proposition 187, by contrast, was passed by 59% of the voters, a margin typically described as "overwhelming.")

When the library vote was analyzed by region, it proved true to historic trends. In all 15 council districts, a majority voted yes. But in the Valley, traditionally more resistant to taxes, the margin was thin. In the four council districts entirely within the Valley, the majorities ranged from just over 50% to just under 55%. By contrast, in Yaroslavsky's district, an affluent area straddling the southeast Valley and part of the inland Westside, Proposition L received a 71% yes vote.

These results proved both disappointing and encouraging. Observers felt Holden had created just enough doubt to thwart the measure. Yaroslavsky and library supporters decided to try again. To be eligible for the April 1989 ballot, the measure would by law have to be "significantly different." Hopeful of finding money for the Central Library elsewhere, supporters tailored the new measure, Proposition 1, to address only branch library needs.

There was an important change of strategy as well. Wrote Reagan: "The campaign was divided: one approach for the San Fernando Valley, headlining the creation of three new branches, and another for the rest of the city, concentrating on the seismic problems."

When the ballots were counted this time, the yes vote citywide was a victorious 68.2%. This time, in the four Valley-only districts, the "yes" vote ranged from 59.1% to 62.6%--stronger support, yes, but still short of two-thirds.

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