Chicago library housing historic collection of black literature in jeopardy

CHICAGO — A storm is brewing in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood and it’s all over a library that houses a priceless collection of literature. The building, which is in dire need of attention, is literally falling apart.

The community is crying foul, and demanding that action be taken.

“You wouldn’t know that is was a library, that it was this incredible resource. This cultural center — museum if you will,” said Melvin Thompson, executive director of the Endeleo Institute.

The Carter G. Woodson Library, is home to the Midwest’s largest collection of black literature.  Those gems, apart of the Vivian G. Harsh Collection, are named after Chicago’s first black librarian.

The collection features slave and genealogy records, and original manuscripts from notable black authors. It’s a collection now at risk, thanks to this building’s fragile state.

“I know the scaffolding has been her a while. I never seen anybody doing anything,” said library patron Thomas W. Spheight

In fact, the scaffolding has been here for so long, no one seems to really know exactly how long it’s been in place. According to the city, the scaffolding was put up during the Daley Administration back in 2002 that’s 14 years ago. First around the entrance, and then it expanded to take up the entire front of the structure. Why? The city says shoddy construction and poor design of Woodson library, when it was built 40 years ago, led to this. The scaffolding is now in place to protect pedestrians surrounding this very busy regional library.

“We’ve got 25,000 people coming through the turn styles every month at that library; 8,000 books are checked out every month; 12,000 hours of computer usage per month. This is significant.” Thompson said.

Thompson’s Endeleo Institute is a non-profit that’s focused on building up Chicago’s Washington Heights community. Right now, the group’s primary focus is getting Woodson Library the attention it needs.

“We just think that it’s deplorable that the city has neglected this library to the point that it’s in disrepair and unsafe,” Thompson said.

What makes it even more tragic is that the library is named after the “Father of Black History.” Many credit Carter G. Woodson for what we now know as Black History Month.

Since 2013, Endeleo has been putting pressure on the city to make the repairs while watching new state-of-the art libraries go up in Beverly and Chinatown.

“Nothing has been put in writing, and that was by design,” Thompson said. “Transparency has always been an issue for the city.”

Chicago’s Fleet and Facility Management Department, or 2FM, is managing Woodson’s renovation project for the Chicago Public Library, but neither of the department’s commissioners would go on-camera to talk about this project.

WGN was told that a facelift for Woodson carries an estimated budget somewhere between $5-10 million, but city officials couldn’t seem to give me a reason why the library has been neglected for so long.

 

“I’ll take that bullet because I do represent the city,” said Rich Butler with City of Chicago Procurement Services, “Unfortunately i don’t represent 2fm or chicago public library those are two separate departments.”

Butler said these words at an explosive community meeting called to talk about the Woodson project and its expectations, but the project’s leaders — neither 2FM nor the Chicago Public Library — showed up for the meeting.

The Endeleo Institute and community residents are demanding that a “community benefits agreement” be put in place to ensure a reasonable amount of minority and local hiring is satisfied once this city project gets off the ground. The city tells WGN is is not interested in pursue a community benefits agreement, but it is willing to increase minority and local hiring for this project, above the standard city mandates.

Nearly $10 million has been granted to the Chicago Public Library by the state for the Woodson project, but only about $6 million has actually been paid out. The rest is tied-up in the state budget stalemate.

The city expects to put this project up for bid by the end of March.

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