Patrons of closing Pratt branch voice protest -- and don't plan to keep quiet

November 16, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

A city-operated drug rehabilitation center sits across the street from the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In the wake of severe budget cuts by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Daybreak Rehabilitation Program is staying open to dispense methadone but by early December the library will no longer dispense books.

That makes no sense to Herbert F. Miller, a 68-year-old literacy volunteer and one of about 30 people who picketed the library yesterday to protest its closing. Mr. Miller pointed to preschoolers walking with adults in a picket line and said: "It's better to have them going in the library now than going over [to the rehab] later on."

After being hit with an immediate $1.3 million cut in its $16 million budget, the Pratt announced Wednesday that it would lay off 41 workers, furlough remaining employees for six days, close the Central Library every Friday, and close eight of its 28 neighborhood branches.

The decision will end Pratt's 40-year presence in Southwest Baltimore's Cherry Hill community, an isolated peninsula neighborhood of poor and working-class African-Americans that feels further disenfranchised with the loss of its library.

"This just contributed to many of the problems we have already," said Pat A. Gaither, director of the St. Veronica's Damascus Education Center, an adult and preschool literacy program at 806 Cherry Hill Road.

"The people we are helping learn to read cannot afford books. They don't have resources at home to complete their assignments," Ms. Gaither said. "To say that we are the city that reads and then remove from people the primary source of all reading materials is hypocrisy."

Other branches scheduled to close are in Canton, Morrell Park, Dundalk, the Hollins Market area, Gardenville, Pimlico and Clifton Park.

The eight branches scheduled for closing circulated 153,025 books last year. Two of them, Dundalk and Morrell Park, had increases in lending of 2 percent each. The rest experienced declines of between 4 percent at Lake Clifton and 63 percent near Hollins Market. The Pratt selected the branches to be closed based on use, condition of the buildings and proximity to better-used libraries.

The next closest Pratt library to Cherry Hill is at 300 E. Patapsco Ave., about two miles and a $1.10 one-way bus fare away in Brooklyn.

"The only means of transportation for most of our citizens is by bus, and this is a poor community with an average income below the level of poverty for the rest of the city," Ms. Gaither said.

Although Cherry Hill is near the bottom in terms of books circulated -- only 9,872 books last year, compared with 116,630 books at the most-used branch on Reisterstown Road -- its supporters say other factors should be considered.

For starters, the Cherry Hill branch is not a free-standing library but a room in a multipurpose center that also houses a mayor's station, Urban Services offices, a health center, and employment counseling offices. "This building is going to be operating anyway. The lights are going to be on. They're still going to have security officers," said resident Regina L. Dow. "How much does it take to keep one room going in a building that's open anyway?"

The Pratt says it costs $123,468 a year to run the Cherry Hill branch, most of it salary for librarians.

"I think it's very cheap to operate this place," said Loretta Rosendale. If the Pratt is broke, Ms. Rosendale said, "maybe the alternative is to give the library to one of the literacy programs and let them run it."

Said Ms. Gaither: "We're open to any alternative solutions."

The library protest is scheduled to move to City Hall at noon Monday.

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