Council members nudge Pratt to restore service Library demanded for Lafayette Square

June 07, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, are threatening to set aside part of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's proposed budget to resurrect library service in Lafayette Square four years after the Pratt abandoned the poor, West Baltimore neighborhood.

Mr. Bell, who represents Lafayette Square, said he will introduce an amendment this week to Pratt allocations in the city budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The strategy has strong support from Mrs. Clarke.

Such an amendment has been used in the past to persuade the city school system to bend to the will of the City Council.

At a recent hearing on the Pratt's proposed $18.4 million budget, an angry Mrs. Clarke told library officials: "Until this problem is solved, we are not the least bit interested in any further expansions or development of the Pratt."

Said Mr. Bell: "It wouldn't be difficult for the Pratt to reassume responsibility for Lafayette Square. Until they do, I'd like for us to cut a certain amount of their budget and hold it until the money is directed properly.

"We [the council] have the hammer," Mr. Bell said. "We have to pass their budget."

In 1989, the 4th District lost small Pratt libraries in Reservoir Hill and Lafayette Square to budget problems. Since then, the West Lafayette Community Association has paid rent to operate the old Pratt reading room at a neighborhood multi-purpose center. Mr. Bell said he would like to hold back at least the equivalent of a year's rent on the reading room -- $8,400.

Already a year behind in the rent, the neighborhood group now faces the loss of the city Urban Services employee who runs the grass-roots library with student volunteers.

"We've only been able to buy 25 new books in four years," said Mary R. Parrish, a Lafayette Square neighborhood leader. "We've been outside screaming from rooftops, 'We're going down! We're drowning! Save us!'

"Why do we have to struggle to provide for our children what everyone else gets free of charge?" she asked.

Councilwoman Agnes Welch, D-4th, said, "We've got to have a library in Lafayette Square," but she wasn't certain that forcing the Pratt to resume service there is the answer. Sheila Dixon, the other 4th District council member, said she's been too busy trying to raise rent money for the Lafayette Square reading room to study the idea of getting it back into the Pratt system.

The nearest Pratt library to Lafayette Square is at North and Pennsylvania avenues, one of the city's large "area resource libraries," that absorbed the staff and budget of Lafayette Square and Reservoir Hill. The Pennsylvania Avenue library is about 16 blocks north of Lafayette Square, and a youngster without transportation would have to walk through some of Baltimore's most dangerous streets to use it.

The endangered Lafayette Square reading room -- which will be home to a community-funded summer arts camp -- is across the street from Harlem Park Elementary School and Harlem Park Middle School.

Ms. Parrish said that a year ago, Pratt trustees led her group to believe Lafayette Square would be considered for re-entry into the city's extensive system of 28 neighborhood libraries.

Mr. Bell, also present at the meeting, remembers the same thing.

But Pratt trustee president James A. Ulmer -- who at last week's council hearing told Mr. Bell he personally would like to see Pratt serving Lafayette Square -- said no promise was made.

The Pratt is on the threshold of entering the age of electronic library service, Mr. Ulmer said, and tough questions about how best to serve communities like Lafayette Square will have to wait until the library maps out its future.

"I'm concerned about the future, too," Mr. Bell said. "And if the new library is going to be about technology, then I want to make sure kids in Lafayette Square and Harlem Park and Sandtown have access to it and are taught how to use it."

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