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Library Rewrites L.A. History

Learning: Branch that was shut down by Whittier quake and again by riots reopens with state-of-the-art facilities.

November 03, 1998|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tale of the Junipero Serra branch library in South-Central Los Angeles is a true L.A. story.

The original 75-year-old branch on South Olive Street was closed after suffering severe damage in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. A temporary replacement branch that opened in a mini-mall on Figueroa Street burned to the ground during the 1992 riots.

On Monday, the library's permanent replacement building--a gleaming, 10,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility--opened its doors at the former site of a tortilla factory on Main Street.

"It's the quintessential story of success for Los Angeles," said Susan Kent, the chief librarian for the city of Los Angeles.

The new branch is three times the size of the original library and features a "virtual library" that includes multimedia computer workstations with access to the Internet. The new structure, at Main and 46th streets, was built with a 1989 voter-approved bond measure and contributions from more than 2,000 individuals and groups, ranging from the J. Paul Getty Trust to a Girl Scout troop from the San Fernando Valley.

The Hollywood establishment helped out, too. Director/choreographer Debbie Allen spearheaded a campaign to raise $900,000 to buy the books and materials for the Serra branch and the nearby John Muir branch, which was also burned during the riots.

The library also provides the inner-city community a half-acre children's playground and an outdoor amphitheater. The padding on the surface of the playground was made from recycled tires and tennis balls.

Carrie Swinney, a longtime member of the Friends of the Junipero Serra Library, said the new branch doesn't compare to the original library, which she said was "like a little house--nice and cozy."

"This is a 21st century library," she said.

The library is stocked with 37,000 books, videocassettes and magazines in English and Spanish--nearly twice the resources available at the original branch. The centerpiece of the branch is a 40-foot-high atrium that draws in natural light. At night, the atrium glows from interior lighting, making the building a neighborhood beacon.

The original Junipero Serra branch on Olive Street was built in 1923 of masonry and was scheduled for reinforcement work when damage from the Whittier Narrows quake forced the permanent closure of the structure. Eight months later, the library reopened in its temporary mini-mall quarters, between a 99-cent store and a restaurant that boasted "$1 Chinese Food Tax Included."

Things began to look up for the branch when voters approved a $53.4-million bond measure in 1989 to rebuild it and other libraries.

But during the 1992 riots, looters and vandals burned the two mini-malls that temporarily housed the Junipero Serra and the John Muir branch libraries. The Muir branch had also been forced out of its permanent structure after the 1987 quake. The two branches collectively lost 35,000 books, magazines and videotapes, valued at more than $750,000.

The Muir branch reopened last year on West 64th Street.

As library officials opened the Serra branch, they urged voters to support Proposition DD, a new library bond measure that is on the ballot today.

Minutes after the library opened Monday, adults and children swamped the front desk to sign up for library cards. Teenagers crowded around the computers.

Denise Sanders and Brady Johnson, both eighth-graders from a nearby middle school, logged on to the computers, where Denise found a profile of her favorite women's professional basketball player, Lisa Leslie. Brady checked out the library's online resources.

"I love it," Brady said. "They've got more computers than my school."

Rosa Diaz, who lives two blocks from the library, said she plans to bring her four children on a regular basis.

"It's great," she said. "I plan to come, too."

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