New chapter is success

Library: As the city prepares to close Pratt branches, the Village Learning Place, a former branch, offers a model for revival.

May 04, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

By the steps of the Village Learning Place on St. Paul Street, six boys have left their bicycles, a sign that a once-closed library has sprung back to life and to circulation in Charles Village, better than before.

Inside, the walls of the century-old Victorian red brick building are bright yellow and burnt rust, with the wood chair rail burnished to bring out its beauty. The nearly 9,000 books are new. The 100 periodicals range from The Nation to National Geographic. The six newspapers in the rack all have today's date.

There's a sense of bustle, with the homework club meeting full of small faces on the main level and an art project on sunflowers downstairs.

And don't miss the computer classes taught by Stephan Lieske, the Johns Hopkins University graduate math student who can't hide his pride in the 10 sleek black Dell computer stations.

"That's ethernet cable, if you need the proper term," said Demetreus L. Gregg, an eighth-grader at the nearby Barclay School, pointing out the wiring.

As neighborhoods from Pigtown to Forest Park brace for more Enoch Pratt Free Library branch closures, the story of how a well-organized North Baltimore community reacted to the abrupt closing of its library in 1997 provides a model for revival.

First there was untamed fury; then there were street protests, followed by an unsuccessful lawsuit against the city. Then there was silence when the city locked the doors.

Now, as the Village Learning Place nears its first birthday in June, some say it's a small urban miracle.

"With determination and hard work, a community can make a common vision happen," Learning Place executive director Jennifer Feit said, surveying surroundings shuttered and dark for a few years. "This is a powerful statement."

"They worked their hearts out," Demetreus said, pointing to board member Dolores Anderson and Jenny Harvey, an employee.

The same could be said of scores of village volunteers who refused to accept the city's death verdict on the library building -- built in 1896, the last year of Enoch Pratt's life.

Thousands of hours of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars, raised from state, federal and foundation funds, did the job.

"There were a lot of people who spent a hell of a lot of time," said Lee Jaslow, one of the core group of about a dozen leaders of the campaign waged to reopen 2521 St. Paul St. as more than a traditional library.

With a first-year budget of $600,000, the nonprofit Village Learning Place employs seven full-time workers, including librarian Maxine Tucker, who presides over the growing collection of adult and children's books.

Any Maryland resident can apply for a free library card. The site has 621 "patrons."

The struggle to save the branch put residents in conflict with the direction Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden set for the system about the same time. In a comprehensive plan presented in 1997, she outlined a philosophy that called for four regional branches with the latest digital and research technology -- and fewer of the smaller, older branches.

`Pratt is mistaken'

"Pratt is mistaken in thinking the future is a few large branches," said Jaslow. "In the final analysis, communities need gathering space, and libraries are one of the last remaining networks of public space in the city."

Charles Village and Morrell Park branches were the first to close under Hayden's watch. Eleven more branches of the 26 remaining have been identified as candidates for closure because of budget shortfalls.

Five will be closed this summer, Pratt officials say, after they make a final decision next month.

Pratt officials have said that reuse potential is one criterion they will use to determine which branches to close. The Charles Village building, needing repairs, was given to the community by the city.

While other neighborhoods worry about losing branches, the Village Learning Place is expanding its reach.

A coffee bar, Yea Cafe, with a deep blue star-and-sky ceramic mural made by Baltimore Clayworks artists, will be run by teen-agers to gain work experience when it opens this summer.

"We're trying to get them young," director Feit said as 35 children in a tutorial project painted and composed poems next door. But the Learning Place held two "senior teas" recently to widen its reach and ask older residents what they'd like to see happen here, she said.

"We're trying to get the community, children and adults, to feel ownership," she said. Another asset for all ages, in the planning stage, is a walled garden in the back with a pond and reading benches.

`I'm learning'

Trevor Goyner, 8, who participates in the after-school homework club, said, "I don't want to fail no more. This year I'm learning and I'm going to pass." He is repeating first grade.

For Darice Claude, 48, a volunteer and mother of three, this was her childhood library. "I grew up here and fell in love with books as a result," she said.

Another mother wondered how other neighborhoods would fare if their branches close.

"This is a haven for some of these kids. They're like magnets, interested and enthusiastic. After five libraries close, where are those children supposed to go learn?" Sybil Munford, 43, asked. "Not all communities are so involved."

Jaslow wonders whether Charles Village's success can be reproduced elsewhere.

"Not easily," he said. "The [grant] money may not be avail- able for others. I'm not real optimistic, but I think the Pratt could certainly learn something from what we did."

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