Don't try to tell Yolanda Acosta that a groundbreaking for a new library isn't a big deal. To her and her neighbors in Cypress Park, it is.
That's because the largely Latino blue-collar community in northeast Los Angeles has been trying to shake off a nasty reputation since a 3-year-old white girl was killed by local gang members six years ago in an incident that outraged the nation.
So, there was pride in Acosta's voice Monday at the ceremony for the new $3-million library, which is seen as a boost for the neighborhood along the east bank of the Los Angeles River trying to shed the impression that it's ruled by lawless gang members. She also was proud because the new library branch will be built on a parcel of dirt in the 1100 block of Cypress Avenue where her childhood home once stood.
"My daughter was born here," said Acosta, a 28-year-old single mother, glancing at Gaby, 12. "When I lived here, all we did was just sweep the dirt. Now, who would have thought that this one day would be a library?"
That was the view of most of the 80 people, including youngsters from nearby Aragon Avenue Elementary School and firefighters from Station No. 44, at the kickoff of library construction. The facility is scheduled to open in a year.
"This is exciting because this is something we really need," said Juventino Gomez, president of the Cypress Park Chamber of Commerce. "It will lift up our spirits."
Alexia Teran, president of the Friends of the Cypress Park Library, added, "I'm sorry about what happened to the little girl. But things here are looking up. Let people come down and see what we're doing."
The new branch, with 35,000 books, several computer stations and a community meeting room, will be three times larger than the schoolhouse-type library branch on Pepper Avenue that has served Cypress Park since 1927. That branch will be used as a senior citizens center once the new one opens.
The locals see the new branch as another milestone in Cypress Park's fight to erase the stigma that resulted from the shooting death on Sept. 17, 1995, of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen of nearby Glassell Park. A car carrying her and five other family members and friends drove down a dead-end alley in Cypress Park and was hit by a fusillade of bullets fired by gang members. Several gang members were convicted of the fatal shooting and sent to prison.
The glare of bad publicity, including a condemnation from then-President Clinton, demoralized many neighborhood residents, who were hurt by the thought that Cypress Park was the ultimate urban horror. Since then, activists and others have worked to improve the area's image.
A new Home Depot home-improvement store and a FedEx delivery center have helped to vitalize shopping and commerce in Cypress Park as well as offer more jobs for residents. A long-planned community center was opened in 1998, hastened along by the Kuhen shooting.
Some residents are opposing a proposed warehouse development at nearby Taylor Yards, believing the land next to the Los Angeles River should be used for parkland that can benefit area youths. That would be another plus for Cypress Park, they say.
A new library was first discussed in the days after the shooting.
At Monday's groundbreaking, outgoing Councilman Mike Hernandez, who grew up in Cypress Park, drew a loud round of applause when he reminded listeners that he killed an idea to close the Cypress Park branch in 1993. "I have mixed feelings [about Monday's event] because it's not built yet," the lawmaker said, referring to the five-year process that led to the groundbreaking. "It's not as easy as you think."
Meanwhile, Acosta and her daughter, who still live in the neighborhood, nodded in agreement as they looked over a drawing for the new branch.
Asked whether the new branch will be an improvement over the old branch, Gaby said simply, "Yes."