The finest library in Northeast’s Benning neighborhood has comfortable seats, a well-stocked collection of books heavy in African-American and Latino topics, and an inviting atmosphere complete with incense burners and African drums.
Too bad the books aren’t for circulation. This library is in Rick Tingling-Clemmons’ living room.
About six blocks away is the Benning Neighborhood Library. It’s one of four branches that the D.C. Public Library shut down in December 2004. In the two-and-a-half years since, the grass has grown high, and the building’s been stripped of books and furniture—even its heating system has been carried off to another branch. The building is scheduled for demolition.
That’s left Tingling-Clemmons and his neighbors to rely on the city’s less-than-reliable bookmobiles. And those can’t help them when they need public, air-conditioned space. Several neighborhood groups used to meet in the library. A chess club that played there was one of the city’s best.
“This stuff belongs to us,” says Tingling-Clemmons, who serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “Now these guys are coming in and treating it like their property, but it’s ours.”
Plenty of District residents have complained since the Benning, Anacostia, Tenleytown, and Shaw’s Watha T. Daniel branches closed. But Tingling-Clemmons, along with a group of other library advocates, are the first to take their displeasure to court. Planning their litigation in his library/living room, Tingling-Clemmons & Co. sued the city on June 22 to stop the bulldozers. So far, a Superior Court judge has postponed the demolition until after the group’s next court hearing, on July 20.
According to the lawsuit, the city sank more than $3 million into plans, studies, and recommendations on how to reopen the various branches, only to opt for demolishing the Benning branch without making a final decision on a permanent replacement.
In addition to the restraining order, the group also seeks an order guaranteeing equal access to library resources, removal of asbestos from library fixtures, and the right of community members to participate in deciding the future of the library.
In its answer to the complaint, the city says that the plaintiffs don’t know what they’re talking about. When the plaintiffs cite District law to say the local advisory neighborhood commission should have been informed of the pending demolition, the city says it had no duty to inform them because the library will remain a library—eventually.
“It’s just a matter of going through and making this stuff look silly,” says Jane Zara, a Mount Pleasant attorney and co-plaintiff, holding a copy of the city’s brief.
Dorothy Douglas, another library agitator, observes that the city didn’t take them seriously enough to get organized before the hearing; the city’s lawyers, the plaintiffs say, showed up at court with little idea of what their suit was about. “There is no respect from our leaders,” she says. “They were not even prepared.”
Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, named in the lawsuit, says the library closed because the city thought its money would be spent better on a new one than on bringing the old one up to code. As for why the city paid for plans it never used, she says that no one provided consistent leadership at the time (there were two interim chief librarians) and that finding a spot for a relocated library proved harder than it looked.
“It is a complex issue, and I hate the fact that there isn’t a library in that area,” she says. “If I were those folks, I would be darn unhappy.”
Since she came to the District last summer, Cooper says she has been trying to establish a temporary library in Benning. A 4,000-square-foot portable building has been set up two blocks east of the closed branch and stocked with books. The only problem is that there isn’t any electricity. Cooper says Pepco is scheduled to hook up the building by next week, but she makes no promises. “It’s been frustrating to me how long it takes to get things done,” she says.
Cooper says planning continues on a permanent replacement. An architect has been hired, she says, and a new Benning Neighborhood Library should be open by 2010.
On a Sunday evening, the plaintiffs sit among Tingling-Clemmons’ masks and djembes to talk strategy. They’re skeptical toward the city’s claims that a new library is on the way.
When it comes to city planners and their intentions, Tingling-Clemmons refuses to give them the benefit of the doubt: “If you see [the city] as misinformed motherfuckers, then you deal with them that way. But if you see them as dirty bastards who are taking something from you…and you start there, then you can get in a position where you can fight them.”