Thursday, January 1, 2009

True Melting Pot helped Save the Libraries!

True melting pot helped save libraries

By Jeff Shields

Inquirer Staff Writer

Stirred by Mayor Nutter's proposal to close 11 branch libraries, the opponents came tumbling offthe shelves of Philadelphia society - rich, poor, black, white, homeschoolers from the Northeast, young anarchists from West Philly.

With President-elect Barack Obama's campaign as both inspiration and field guide, they organized, demonstrated and sued, then packed the courtroom for hearings and showered themayor with boos at his own news conference.

Then, astoundingly, they won. At least for now.

A judge's ruling Tuesday forced Nutter to get City Council approval or a court order to implement his plan to save $36 million by 2013 through closing the branches. Nutter called the ruling an assault on the City Charter's strong-mayor form of government and said he would appeal.

Others called it a crucial victory for communities, even a model for civic participation in public policy.

"I've never seen anything quite like this. I've never seen such a diverse group of people come together around one cause," said Eric Braxton of Kingsessing, one of the advocates who rallied around the Kingsessing branch in Southwest Philadelphia.

"People just came together in a very fast and almost surprising way," said Irv Ackelsberg, a former Community Legal Services lawyer and City Council candidate who sued Nutter on behalf of seven residents and the union representing library workers. "We've just come through a few months in which the impossible happened: The Phillies won the world series and Barack Obama became president. My God, we can do anything."

Ackelsberg's case was bolstered by the stories of his plaintiffs, who included a 15-year-old high school student from Ogontz; two women who homeschool their children, one from the Northeast and the other the Northwest; and a South Philly woman whose 11-year-old walks three blocks tothe Queen Memorial branch.

He said the plaintiffs were "basically delivered" to him by a grassroots upwelling whose cohesiveness was partly attributed to the Internet community surrounding the Young Philly Politics blog run by his son, Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg.

Ackelsberg said his son prodded him to file the lawsuit in the first place.

"I do remember a call with something along the lines, 'Dad, I think it's time for you to get off thebench,' " he said.

As soon as Nutter announced the plan on Nov. 6, ordinarily placid residents began to mobilize.

Katrina Clark, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at the Montessori Genesis II school in Mantua, usually takes her students once a week to the Charles L. Durham Library two blocks away. Her school does not have a library.

When Durham was slated for closure, Clark realized that her class would have to make a 2.6-mile round trip to the Walnut Street West branch.

Clark, 29, said was raised in Manayunk in a nonpolitical family.

"The way I grew up in Philadelphia, you just hear what politicians do, and you shake your finger at them because you feel they're doing something wrong, but you don't really feel you can do anything about it," she said.

But the Obama campaign changed that for her. She became a volunteer, made phone calls, knocked on doors, and felt as if she could change things.

"This has been the first time I think I've really stood up and spoke out and didn't just accept a lesser alternative that the politicians were offering me," she said.

And so she became an organizer for a citywide movement called the Coalition to Save the Libraries. The group of about 40 staged a public "indictment" of the mayor outside City Hall on Tuesday and helped fill the courtroom with about 100 people for hearings Monday and Tuesday.

Some of those people took a break from the hearing in Courtroom 426 Monday to attend Nutter's second-floor news conference at which he announced a plan to keep library buildings open with private funding as "knowledge centers." He was roundly booed.

A.J. Thomson, a lawyer, Democratic committeeman, and former officer of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, said the number of protesters was remarkable for the time of year. "This is the dead of winter, holiday time. To get this many people involved now is almost impossible," said Thomson, 32, already a veteran political organizer. "This is a true melting pot of all different kinds of people."

There was a cadre of what detractors like to call professional protesters, to be sure - the same faces that can be counted at any antiestablishment event, passing out antiwar literature or theday's chosen cause.

And the movement was unquestionably bolstered by the participation of West Philadelphia, long a center of leftist political activism, where libraries in Kingsessing and Mantua are on thechopping block.

Hannah Jane Sassaman by day organizes for the Service Employees International Union, but she volunteered to help with public relations for her Kingsessing neighborhood. Thomson, of Fishtown, admiringly described the Kingsessing group as "rabid."

Braxton, 33, a lifetime Kingsessing resident and professional organizer for the Philadelphia Education Fund, described an odd coalition of mostly African American block captains coming together with young white anarchists who hosted a save-the-libraries event at the A-Space at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue.

The anarchists cooked collard greens, the block captains roused the neighborhood, and Braxton took their cause to the citywide groups.

"I've never seen those two types working together, but in this case, they have," Braxton said.

In an interview with The Inquirer editorial board on Tuesday after the judge's decision, Nutter warned that his inability to proceed with cuts would produce pain somewhere else with finances getting worse.

"I appreciate the passion on the library side," said Nutter, who with fellow City Councilman Frank DiCicco was named 2005 politician of the year by the Library Journal for their fight against library cuts. "But we may have to make even worse decisions going forward."

Those decisions will be closely watched by what the library advocates say is a new consciousness.

"I think it's going to be this kind of ad hoc coalition of organizations across the city," Sassaman said, "that will end up keeping Mayor Nutter accountable to his promise of having a transparent government."

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