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Pride Creates Community Room

September 21, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Residents of one of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods will close the book today on a 10-year campaign to improve their community library when they reopen it after a $3.6-million expansion.

An airy, futuristic addition to the tile-roofed Jefferson Park library has quadrupled its size. Along with space for 28 public computer terminals and a classroom where adults will be taught to read, the building includes the community's first meeting room.

The changes are remarkable at the 79-year-old Jefferson-Vassie D. Wright Memorial Library, where members of the Our Authors Study Club shoved reading tables together when they met to discuss black writers in the 1940s.

Equally remarkable is the do-it-yourself nature of the community's crusade to improve the place.

The structure at 2211 W. Jefferson Blvd. was inexplicably left off the lists of city libraries earmarked for renovation or replacement through voter-approved bond measures in 1989 and 1998.

Community involvement in the Jefferson Park library grew out of the 1992 riots when real estate broker Ralph Gilmer saw a health-care consultant, Robert Sausedo, walking door-to-door, handing out fliers that pleaded "Don't Burn This Neighborhood!"

The men organized a neighborhood meeting at the library to discuss ways of improving the area so that rioting "would never happen again," as Gilmer put it. Those taking part in the meeting quickly found an issue to tackle: The little library did not have a public restroom.

The group got restrooms and a wheelchair ramp installed. Heady with that success, it organized itself into the nonprofit Community Empowerment Corp. and set out to get a meeting room added to the library.

Architect Tom Rael volunteered to draw up plans, and the group used them to show potential donors that they were serious about the project. By the late 1990s, it appeared that the group had wrangled a $2.3-million donation from a Japanese car maker to pay for the construction.

But the funding failed to materialize. After that, the group successfully lobbied city officials for $2.7 million in federal community development block grant money. Later, city library administrators contributed $960,000 that had been accumulated from interest and project savings from the 1989 bond measure.

Group members consulted city-contracted architects from the Santa Monica firm of Killefer Flammang about the design of the addition. Meeting each Tuesday night in the library's tiny reading room, they grappled with such issues as how to apportion space between bookshelves and computer work stations.

The finished structure blends the Spanish-looking, circa-1923 original building and the flashy new glass and steel addition.

"It even turned out more beautiful than I thought," said Michael Williams, a university administrative assistant who has been part of the 20-member group from the beginning.

A 30-foot illuminated glass tower inscribed with the words "Keep the Light Burning, Someone Is Coming Home" stands at the library's entrance. It refers to advice that was given to Gilmer by a stranger when the library fund-raising effort seemed to be at a dead end.

Today's 10 a.m. reopening ceremony will include the unveiling of a sign designating the new community meeting hall as the Ralph Gilmer Room.

Gilmer suggests that the name Community Room is appropriate.

"If the community hadn't stood up, this library wouldn't be here now," he said.

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