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Riding High on a Sea of Civility and Knowledge

March 12, 2000|JAMES RICCI

The Felipe de Neve library rides the northern boundary of Lafayette Park like a sturdy ship in surging waters. Around its brick fastness social changes swirl, sweeping in new peoples and new ways, and sweeping out the old. Still, the library beats on, a place of ideas, information, refuge.

Seventeen-year-old Lucy Garcia is draped over a table in the teen room, writing an essay on her family's Easter traditions for an expository composition class at McAlister High School. Here she can concentrate better than at home, where her 5-month-old daughter, now being baby-sat by Garcia's mother, would distract her.

Around the corner on a window seat at the end of a row of bookshelves, 50-year-old Neville Chen thumbs through "Arithmetic Made Simple" to remind himself of how he learned basic math. He is on lunch break from his clerk's job in the nearby Los Angeles Superior Court building and is the kind of man who likes calm surroundings and keeping his mind sharp.

And at one of the computers in the open central section of the library, 78-year-old Frances Wagner stands above a librarian who's helping her find a Web site for people looking to put up pets for adoption. Last November, Wagner happened upon a hungry dog in Lafayette Park and bought it some meat from a catering truck. The dog, a female German shepherd mix, followed her home. Wagner named her "Happy," then "Iditarod" and, finally, "Waggy."

But she came to feel guilty about having to confine the animal in the kitchen of her apartment, and was looking for a family to adopt it, preferably a family with a house and a big backyard. "Oh, when I have to let her go, I'm going to cry," she is telling the librarian. "You know I'm going to cry for a week."

On a Tuesday afternoon, about 50 people sit about or meander through the library, with its new gray carpeting and spotless white walls. The bleats and babbling of small children and the matter-of-fact voices of staff members rise to the high, timbered ceiling. Because of crowded schools, the children of the neighborhood attend classes on a year-round basis, meaning that at any given time, a third of them are on vacation and a certain percentage of that third usually can be found in the library, reading or traveling the Internet on a dozen public computers. Neighborhood libraries are no longer quiet places, Felipe de Neve chief librarian Christine Metro says, but "places of active learning."

One of the reasons Felipe de Neve is riding high these days is the mounting sea outside. A decade ago, you could look out the south-facing windows of the library and watch drug dealers transacting business in the park. One day, a man who'd been stabbed there staggered to the library's front lawn and died.

Around that time, the Felipe de Neve branch was relocated to a mini-mall at 6th and Rampart so that the original 1929 building could be retrofitted and remodeled. The temporary location, away from the park's evils, built up a large clientele of families. Metro wondered whether they'd follow when, in July 1998, the library moved back to its original building.

"You kind of held your breath," she says. "It was like when you throw a party. Is anybody going to come?"

She needn't have worried. Lafayette Park had been made more family-friendly in the interim; its senior citizens' center had been expanded into a full-fledged community center with preschool, after-school and sports programs for children. On reopening day, the library was jammed.

Since then, longtime Anglo, Korean and Filipino residents of the neighborhood just west of downtown, augmented by mostly impoverished newcomers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, have made Felipe de Neve one of the 10 busiest of the Los Angeles Public Library's 67 branches.

The evolving neighborhood has reoriented the library in many ways. Entire sections have been given over to English-as-a-second-language materials, books and periodicals in Spanish and manuals to help people prepare for GED and citizenship examinations. The library also has become a place for socializing for young immigrant mothers escaping with their small children from over-peopled apartments and numbing domestic routines.

The usual number of books disappear. Metro ascribes some of that to many customers' unfamiliarity with return policies and their fear, once books are overdue, of having to pay fines from scant resources. Also, many of the new immigrants change residences frequently. "Sometimes apartment owners come in with an armload of books and say, 'One of my tenants left these behind,' " Metro says.

She and her staff of 11, most of whom speak English and Spanish, seek to attract ever more people from the neighborhood into the library. Many of these people come from places where libraries are for the elite or are completely unknown. The staff seeks to counteract this by dealing always in "a friendly tone, a welcoming tone, a neighborly tone," Metro says. "Because the library is for everybody."

Ultimately, I believe, people climb aboard Felipe de Neve to breathe the air. It feels uniquely oxygenated--by orderliness, respect for knowledge, and a civility that contradicts the assumption that this city, because it is polyglot, must be unruly.


James Ricci's e-mail address is

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