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One year later, the People’s Library transforms into a community space

Last year, activists and residents took over an abandoned library at 1449 Miller Avenue in East Oakland. They set out books, planted vegetables, and declared it the “People’s Library.” But technically, their project was illegal, and no one was sure what would ultimately happen to their reclaimed space.

Meanwhile, the city was waiting to hear from the state about what to do with the abandoned library building. The state reviewed the list of properties Oakland’s former redevelopment agency owned, and returned 1449 Miller Avenue to city hands. Since then, though, nothing’s changed: On the one day the activists occupied the library last year, they opened windows to let in some fresh air. City workers locked the entrance to the building that night, but didn’t bother to shut those windows. They remain open to this day, and the inside of the building continues to deteriorate.

A thriving garden, a thriving community

When you walk up to the library now, the first thing you see isn’t books -- it’s vegetables. There a few tomes around -- some shelves here and a milk crate there -- but because the library building is now off-limits, the People’s Library has become more of the People’s Garden.

Ten-year-old Favian Sanchez got involved in the garden with his family last year. He mostly lives in Sacramento, but he visits the garden as often as he can when he’s with his dad in Oakland. 

He shows me the first sprouts poking their heads out of the fresh dirt. Favian calls them “The Big Show.”

His seeds are in one of eight boxes, bursting with fruits and vegetables, on a plot of land roughly the size of a football field end zone. “We have squash, kale, baby tomatoes, adult tomatoes,” says garden organizer Jaime Yassin. “Broccoli, a lot of squash. Some of these are getting big.”

Though the library part has dwindled, on the day I visit, a couple of neighborhood men are sitting by a stack of books reading, and just chilling out in the evening breeze. About a dozen kids play while parents chat and supervise. Yassin still stops by a few times a week. And he says, this kind of scene is pretty common. 

“It’s become a place where people like to come and hang out for a minute and read a book,” he says. “Talk to neighbors, have children play and have something constructive.”

Fighting blight

Something constructive is sorely needed. The intersection where the library is located is littered with trash; I also saw a few dumped mattresses and a decomposing opossum. Against that backdrop, the garden and library are a welcome oasis.

“When the building’s abandoned, it’s occupied by people who do bad things,” neighborhood resident Zenobio Vasquez says in Spanish, through a translator. “So any organization that’ll take over and convert it will be a positive change for the community.”

Vasquez led efforts to keep the garden project going since last year. He says the area has gotten a little bit better in that time.

“The people who want to come in to do violent things don’t when they see there’s people working here,” he says.

An uncertain future

Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo knows the abandoned building is a problem for the area. He took office after the initial action and remembers his first impressions.

“The garden was really clean, well taken-care-of,” he says. “Kids were using it. I saw the bookstands on the outside and the kids going there. And it’s a good thing.”

But still, technically, illegal. Gallo says he doesn’t mind the neighbors using the space, but the city has to decide what to do with it. And he understands the activists’ predicament.

“The city does not want to fix it but it doesn’t want you to use it either,” he says.

He says there have been several inquiries for the space, including from schools and a nonprofit, but the city hasn’t made a move yet.

When I asked around, the director of an Alameda charter school told me she’s particularly interested in the location because so many of her students live in the area. But she hasn’t even been able to see the building.

Garden organizer Jaime Yassin says her experience isn’t unusual.

“No one who wants to buy the building has yet been able to get into the building to see what they need to do,” he says.

He doubts a deal is likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, there’s a kind of a status quo. Yassin says the city shut them down a few times initially, but that it’s been pretty quiet for the past six months.

A community celebrates

Sometimes, the garden works in mysterious ways.

“The cool thing at this point is sometimes when we come here and we find things planted where, we don’t know where they came from,” says Yassin. “So that bucket over there with something in it? I’m happy to not know.”

Councilman Gallo says he plans to walk through the library with interested investors soon. And until something happens, Zenobio Vasquez and other residents plan to continue to improve their reclaimed space. Vasquez says his next project will be to protect the books from damage.

“I want to build a little house where the milk crate library is, so we don’t have to deal with the books getting wet,” he says. “I want to plant more gardens and more plants so anyone who comes by can smell the scent.”

The residents will host a one-year anniversary barbecue on Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 1449 Miller Avenue.