GAGE PARK — The Gage Park Public Library is a tight squeeze.
Housed inside a two-story storefront at 2807 W. 55th St., the 30-year-old branch lacks space for community groups to meet and doesn’t offer enough Spanish-language materials in the predominately Latino neighborhood, critics said. It was too small to allow for social distancing during the worst of the pandemic, only reopening to the public Monday after being closed 16 months.
With the lease on the space ending next year, the Gage Park Latinx Council is pushing the Chicago Public Library to invest in a larger, permanent neighborhood branch with more resources to serve families and organizations. A petition with those aims launched late last month and has about 2,300 signatures.
“If the physical space was too small to social distance, then it’s too small for a community of 55,000 residents who desperately need public space, access to information, internet and computers,” council Executive Director Antonio Santos said.
The library opened inside the Gage Park Fieldhouse in 1928 and has leased the 55th Street storefront since 1990. The city rents the 4,165-square-foot space for $3,580 per month, according to a contract approved by City Council in April 2016.
That agreement ends in December 2022, according to city records, providing a perfect opportunity for the city to buy property for a new location, Santos said.
Chicago Public Library spokesman Patrick Molloy said the agency does not have a capital budget it can devote to such projects and tries to partner with local leaders to find funding to upgrade its branches.
Molloy also said the Chicago Public Library is committed to providing “free and open access to information and experiences that reflect and engage Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and people equitably and inclusively.”
While the Gage Park branch was closed, the Chicago Public Library offered virtual youth programs, including a bilingual series, Molloy said. Those will continue on its YouTube page even as in-person programs resume.
Santos said a public library is critical for many youths from working-class families, as they rely on a safe public space after school hours. When he was a kid, he would walk his siblings to the library after school and they did homework and spent a few hours there until their mother picked them up after work.
Decades later, the library remains largely unchanged and the community has outgrown it, Santos said.
The Gage Park Latinx Council, which formed three years ago, said the space isn’t big enough for their events and, at times, they’ve experienced power outages and leaky roofs during meetings there.
Last fall, the council opened a cultural center to provide additional community space for youth because the library didn’t have “sufficient space,” Santos said.
Santos wants the Gage Park branch to have a children’s library, a dedicated teen space, a multimedia room, a community meeting space, workshops for adults and free parking. It also is critical the space be ADA accessible, he said.
“The public spaces are so limited in our community … . A library can be a hub of resources, but, unfortunately, the Gage Park Library — like the rest of Gage Park — has been a resource desert that has been divested for decades,” Santos said.
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