Housing Complex

Library Occupation Funks the Police [UPDATE]

A very civil action.

A very civil action.

At 5:30 on Saturday afternoon, it was the last hour of the last day before the Mount Pleasant library was scheduled to close for a 17-month-long remodel. Patrons slowly filtered out, some looking wistfully around them at a classic interior they’d never see again, as librarians shooed them towards the door.

Others didn't leave so quietly.

“Who’s ever heard of Martin Luther King before?” yelled Chris Otten, an organizer of the small but lively protest on the sidewalk outside. “Have you heard of Gandhi? Have you heard of civil disobedience?”

While people vacated the upper floors, Otten revealed, his band of monkeywrenchers had locked open the door to the basement with a chain and padlock. A few pranced into the darkened interior, to beats provided by a roving sound system recognizable from recent Funk the War protests.

"The protesters have broken into the library,” an agitated library manager said into his iPhone, over the music and chanting. Police soon arrived on the scene—within an hour, six squad cars and two vans crowded the corner of 16th and Lamont—and tried to sever the chain with bolt cutters. “I live in the neighborhood. I agree with you,” a police sergeant remonstrated with Otten. “I just gotta do my job.” Delighted protesters started busting break dance moves, while Ward One city council candidate Jeff Smith had arrived to hand out stickers and lit.

This dustup was only the most recent in a string of protests around the last of three original Carnegie libraries to be renovated, which has become a flashpoint for local library activists. The $11 million facelift, they say, poses a fire hazard to surrounding buildings, inconveniences disabled patrons, and will desecrate the building’s historic interior. “It’s inappropriate and disrespectful,” said Faye Armstrong, of Historic Mount Pleasant. “It’s a cookie-cutter approach to what a modern branch library should have.”

In particular, preservationists lament the destruction of an elegant sun room in the back of the library, which will be replaced by a large addition for meeting space. The architect’s plans retain the original fireplaces and some murals, but vinyl and linoleum dominate the surfaces.

Patrick Sheary, the curator of furnishings at the Daughters of the American Revolution museum, looked heartbroken as he surveyed the oak circulation desk, elaborate cornices, and cast-iron shelves that would be junked in the remodel. “These are solid walls. You just don’t really get those anymore,” he said, patting the plaster. “People don’t really get the extent of what’s going to happen.”

The larger problem, activists say, is D.C. Public Libraries’ lack of response to community concerns. Despite several public meetings and a survey done on the front end of the project, the Library Renaissance Project (a Ralph Nader brainchild started in 2002) is pushing for the closure to be delayed until questions of accessibility and fire safety in the finals plans can be addressed—or at least until the opening of interim library, which is supposed to be ready by April 26.

This week, two Advisory Neighborhood Commissions will release reviews of the library plans undertaken by outside contractors at the cost of $3,000 apiece. According to ANC commissioner Chris Otten—also a Library Renaissance Project field organizer—the studies find that the library’s plans for a wheelchair ramp fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even if DCPL doesn’t take the studies into account, he noted, they may serve as evidence in a potential lawsuit against the city.

“One of the reasons there’s been a lot of failure in the library system is that they haven’t been open to the public,” said Robin Diener, leader of the Library Renaissance project, who argued good-naturedly with a cop, sign in hand.  “Unfortunately, the library takes all suggestions as criticism. I think that’s unusual, and that’s a shame.”

UPDATE: DCPL spokesman George Williams emails this reasoning for the gap between closing the old library and opening an interim:

"The three week period between closing one location and opening another is so that staff can move the books, computers and other items between locations. Here is some of what happens during the three weeks:

  • pack up the books, DVDs, and other items
  • disassemble and pack up the computers,
  • pack up the phones and other equipment like book displays etc,
  • move the items to the new location,
  • unpack everything, catalog the books before placing them on the shelf [this is important so that we can direct users to the right places in the new location],
  • set up the computers and the IT network, then test everything
  • set up new book displays,
  • clean the new location once everything is put in place"

Photo by Lydia DePillis

  • D

    I love the idea that people expect that the DC Government is going to be run effectively will all the upper level functionaries hired by Barry 25 years ago.

    Here's a clue, if your bureaucracy is run by people who lived in Washington, DC in the 1970s it's going to suck until they resign or retire. Look at someone- do they look like they smoked weed when they were 17? Then they don't run a tight ship now.

    Don't like dealing with 60 year olds who did cocaine at discos in DC in 1979? Then move to Montgomery County where that didn't happen.

    I love it that the guy asks did anyone remember Martin Luther King Jr? Ha! THAT'S THE DAMN PROBLEM! In DC he is lauded as a successful model when he never ran a successful bureaucracy in his short life! He is a LOUSY role model for kids to model themselves on if they want to be successful as managers.

  • http://www.HalliganProjects.com Rob Halligan

    I know your editorial staff is in transition but "Advisory Neighborhood Councils"? Come on! It's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

    This is spending for the sake of spending.

  • Lydia DePillis

    Remedied! Thanks Rob.

  • Mister Goat

    I'm glad that people are opposing the changes to the library, and as a Ward 1 resident, I support them.

    The disability access ramp issue seems like the most egregious to me. There's a ramp in the front now, but under the plan, the length and grade of the ramp would increase drastically. So it would be harder for people with disabilities to get in, rather than easier!

    Then there's the fact that the ramp would go to a door in the back of the building. That's just an insult to people with disabilities who have to hassle and fight for access to public spaces every day. Did anyone within DCPL think about this before they rolled it out?

  • Mister Goat

    I also must say--George Williams' response falls entirely flat. Why did he choose to address the gap between the closing of this branch and the opening of the new one? From this article and the other things I've read about the issue, that's not one of the major issues here.

    At best, Mr. Williams is failing to listen. At worst, he's actively trying to direct the conversation away from the main topic. Neither looks great.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    i've read a lot about this in the dupont current, but they never mentioned the amount of change (and loss) that would happen to the interiors. i guess i should have realized that would happen, but thanks for pointing it out.

  • Sue Woehr

    I am so sick of these library complainers. I use the Mt. Pleasant library and others and for years they have smelled like homeless shelters and urinals. Finally, the city is improving them and making them usable and the these people act, well, the only word is silly. The woman in the picture with the sign needs to get a life, or a job or pick up some litter instead of complaining about it. Grab a laddle you crazy poster writer and get yourself to a soup kitchen. All I can say is I hope they don't listen Chris Otten, I went to a community meeting and the only word to describe him was whiner. I want to read and check out books and not be accosted by the nuts like you. You are wasting our time and our money. Get a life. ~Sue

  • SG

    This is what the hippies have to complain about? An 11 million dollar library renovation? Talk about get a life. DC is welcome to build a brand new library near me anytime. Let the hippies keep their smelly old one.

  • Jimbo

    I know your paper needs a story, but at least try to be neutral when presenting it. Calling this invasion a 'civil action' and comparing the actions of Chris Otten to Martin Luther King and Gandhi is weak journalism. You come off as an ingenuous amateur, who doesn't know that her craft requires her to do research on an issue before casting judgment on it.

    Did you ever stop to wonder why only 20 or so people (if that many) showed up to protest a library renovation that will affect 73,000 people? Didn't that get your attention? That means the protesters represented around .03% of Ward 1's population (Mount Pleasant is the only library in that ward). Is that really a significant constituency? Does that really reflect the will of the people?

    Why is it that Chris Otten, a professional community organizer (he's paid by Ralph Nader to raise hell), could only manage to round up 20 people on a beautiful Saturday afternoon despite having months to prepare for this event? Are we to believe that the thousands of others who are upset by this renovation decided to see the Cherry Blossoms instead?

    Of course not. The reason few people showed up is because most people in the community do not have not a problem with the renovation of their library. They actually want their library to have decent spaces for meetings and patrons. They actually want a wider stair case. They actually want more computers. They actually want this renovation to take place.

    Instead of comparing Chris Otten to Gandhi or MLK, perhaps a better analogy would be to see him as a little child crying because his parents didn't buy him a toy. Is that someone we should really admire? I don't think so.

    The next time you write an article, please do proper research. Don't get all your information from one source. You do a disservice to your readers and you come off as stupid. Ask questions, seek data, evaluate your sources, analyze your information, and then draw conclusions. I know that's hard, but its your job. If you're going to do it, do it right.

  • http://districtdynamos.org/mount_pleasant/petition District Dynamos

    Once again, the comments section resort to baseless name calling and I guess facts are optional.

    First of all, if you think the protests come from just one lone voice and more than 40 protesters this past Saturday, please take a look at this link >>

    Chris Otten is hardly a lone voice... and all of these voices have legitimate concerns that are not being addressed by DC Public Library leadership, lead by a Chief Librarian making $200,000 a year. Otten makes less than 1/10 of what Cooper makes, yet his efforts with the Dynamos have brought hundreds, if not thousands, of new voices into the library designs throughout the City.

  • Andrew York

    Jimbo, I don't think you read the article very carefully. Also, if you're going to give journalism lessons, learn to 'write tight'. A six paragraph comment for an 11 paragraph story?

  • Jimbo

    I wish Ralph Nader could offer a more competitive salary to recruit community organizers. If all he can offer is less than $20,000 then no wonder he ended up hiring someone like Chris Otten. You get what you pay for.

    Chris Otten and the District Dynamos fabricate facts and use deceitful tactics to create the illusion of mass support. To gather signatures, they approach people and say things like "The Library wants to construct a building that violates fire codes and is inaccessible by wheelchair. Sign here if you think that's bad." Who wouldn't sign that? The problem is that both those accusations are absolutely false.

    Also, I've heard complaints from people about how the District Dynamos misrepresents their opinions. One person thought they had signed up to receive emails about the status of library construction projects. She was surprised to later learn that she was included on some list of people who were opposed to the city's 'transformation' of the libraries. I doubt her story is unique.

    The point is very few people showed up to the protest. Their turnout is inconsistent with their purported number of followers, which only heightens suspicions that the group lies about the support it has.

  • LOL

    If people believe that the group makes no sense, treat them like the crazy people you ignore when they start the crazy talk.

  • Irma Pince

    Rob Halligan wrote:
    "This is spending for the sake of spending."

    Actually, this is protesting for the sake of protesting.

  • http://www.flickr.com/ Mr. T in DC

    Count me in as a supporter of the badly-needed library renovation. Let's face it, Mt. Pleasant residents will complain about even the slightest bit of incremental change in the neighborhood. They're right up there with Cleveland Parkers in manning the NIMBY barricades. I hope the renovation isn't delayed by any of the small band of protesters.

  • Anonymous

    "Count me in as a supporter of the badly-needed library renovation."

    Exactly what the Dynamos and Otten have been rallying for!! All of the criticism aimed at Otten is misguided. He is simply saying--not very clearly I would agree--that Cooper and Company want to blow millions of dollars on an unnecessary addition, when the same thing could be accomplished with a full renovation of the historic structure at a fraction of the cost.

    And the savings could be put into a badly-needed maintenance fund specifically for Mt. Pleasant. The DCPL solution will create an ill-suited, too-large white elephant that Cooper has already admitted publicly won't have funds for maintenance and staffing. (See the Fenty 2011 budget.)

  • Ha

    All of the criticism towards the Dynamos and Otten is well deserved. They tend to twist information in a rather ingenious way. They start with a fact, something that can be verified independently, then use that fact to draw some insane conclusion that they have no way of showing. Kind of like the Tea Party.

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