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The People’s Library continues despite city crackdown

Book lending and community gardening continues in front of an abandoned library in Oakland’s San Antonio district despite a police raid earlier this month. The historic building, a gift from Andrew Carnegie to the city back in 1918, was a branch library until 1976. Two other ventures have come and gone, but the building’s been vacant since 2001. The city says it’s not safe to use.

The blighted property has since attracted drug use, prostitution, and violence. So when activists moved in to reclaim it, local residents enthusiastically joined the effort.

The city says they’re trespassing and has sent police to lock down the building. Residents say they just want to clean up their neighborhood.

In the evenings, the building at 1449 Miller Avenue in East Oakland looks like a vibrant community center. There are garden beds planted with broccoli, kale and strawberries; crates of books stacked on the sidewalk; and mothers and children playing. 

But the building is closed. No Trespassing signs are nailed to the doors. And none of the people outside can go in. 1449 Miller Avenue used to be a library, but it’s been vacant for more than a decade, and the city hasn’t maintained it.

On August 13, activists – many from Occupy Oakland – arrived to try and change that. Starting around 7am, they cleared out debris, put a fresh coat of paint on the walls, stocked some books, and opened the doors. And they put up a large canvas displaying the library’s new name: the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, or Victor Martinez People's Library, after a local poet and author.

Forty-three-year-old organizer Jaime Yassin says they lent out their first book at 7:30am, to a man who stopped in on his way to work. The man took three books and shook the organizers’ hands. Yassin says, “The whole time he was very effusive.”

Residents of all ages stopped by throughout the day. People donated books and checked out books, lingered on the street and built garden beds in the backyard.

“We’re going around here to support what [the activists] are doing to clean it up because this place is overrun with prostitution, drugs, and trash,” says resident Zenobio Vasquez.

But at 11pm, the police arrived. They told the activists to leave, which they did, peacefully. City public works employees boarded up the front door and posted the “NO TRESPASSING” signs.

The next morning, the activists came back. They transferred the books to the milk crates that now line the sidewalk. Organizer Jaime Yassin says the residents were surprised.

“They were like, ‘How could city shut it down knowing what happens here?’” says Yassin. “Almost any other outcome is better than what it is right now.”

Local resident Moises Ramirez agrees. “It’s very difficult to live with these kinds of problems in a place like this. Primarily because of prostitution, robbery, and drugs,” he says. He’s lived within one block of the library for ten years and says crime is a chronic problem.

“It’s very sad, very sad,” says Ramirez. “The police are not doing right by us. The police are wasting their time.”

In the past three months, the area surrounding the library reported about 140 incidents to police, ranging from vehicle theft and assault to murder. But since 2010, Oakland Police have only responded to violent crimes and crimes in progress. They say budget cuts mean they don’t have the manpower to respond to every call. Since the activists arrived, crime in the area has dropped slightly.

But deputy city administrator Arturo Sanchez says he doesn’t see the library takeover as a long-term good. “There’s an old proverb that the road to… hell, is paved with good intentions,” says Sanchez. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things and we would prefer as a city to do things right, correctly, and safely.”

For one thing, Sanchez says, the activists are actually siphoning city resources. “It’s the chicken and egg thing,” he says. “The activities that were being conducted in that building actually have now taken away from our ability to market the property. To a certain extent, they created a Catch-22, where they further exacerbated the problem.”

In other words, the activists think they’ve improved a blighted building; while the city thinks they’ve blighted it further, just by being there.

On a recent Tuesday evening, several dozen activists and neighbors meet to discuss how to move forward. They want to continue regular meetings, increase door-to-door outreach, and lobby the city to use the backyard as a community garden and a playground.

“It would be very easy for the city to give people permission to use the area that way,” says Yassin.

“Partnering and doing things appropriately, yes it takes time,” Sanchez acknowledges, “But the best way to arrive at long-term sustainable developments that provide productive building and productive uses back to the residents of Oakland is to do it right. Follow all the steps, work with us.”

Sanchez says there are good examples of neighborhoods being revitalized. “As you see with all the good stuff that’s going on in downtown, all the Uptown development, everything happened in measured way and it’s working now,” he says.

The city still owns the building, and officials say they still don’t have the resources to rehabilitate it. So until they can lease or sell it to someone else, it will officially continue to sit vacant.

San Antonio resident Moises Ramirez says he wants the building to come back to life.

“I would like to see things be more peaceful, more secure, and with more lights,” says Ramirez.

Once the state gives the go-ahead, Oakland officials say they’ll start looking for alternate uses for the building. That process should start by the end of the year.

Listen to the full story above.

Crosscurrents Oakland