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Fire Creates 'Book Desert'; Neighbors Say New Library Long Overdue

By Patty Wetli | November 4, 2015 2:58pm
 Officials are still assessing damage to the Independence Library following a fire last week.
Officials are still assessing damage to the Independence Library following a fire last week.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

IRVING PARK — A fire that destroyed a number of storefronts in the 3500 block of West Irving Park Road last Friday also caused unknown damage to the neighboring Independence Library, shuttering the branch indefinitely.

"We haven't been able to get into the building yet. We don't know the extent of damage to the building or the collection," said Patrick Molloy, a spokesman for Chicago Public Library.

The commercial property that houses the library, as well as a row of other businesses, sits immediately to the west of the one that burned, with the library closest to the shops that caught fire.

From the exterior, the library appeared wholely intact, though chunks of ash could be seen on the sidewalk and crews were pumping water from the fire-gutted stores into the rear alley.

"At the very least it will need some repair ... so it's closed for the foreseeable future," Molloy said.

Patrons are being pointed to the Albany Park and Mayfair branches, as well as Sulzer Regional Library, for books and programs.

"The city talks about ‘food deserts’ — without this library, we would have a ‘book desert’ in our community," Bobbie Bolociuch, president of the Greater Independence Park Neighborhood Association, told DNAinfo Chicago via email.

"The kids who use the library’s books, computers and other resources often have no other options," she said.

The Independence Library is one of the most-used in the city, but remains housed in a cramped storefront. A fire to the building next door has supporters calling for the library to be replaced, not repaired. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

With the library's future on hold, residents and elected officials say it's time to revive calls for a new building rather than settling for the repair of the existing structure.

The 100-year-old Independence branch, 3548 W. Irving Park Road, is one of the most-used in the city, but remains housed in a cramped storefront, sandwiched amidst a nail salon, laundromat and Quick Mart.

Prior to the arrival of Mary Dempsey as library commissioner in 1994, a large number of branches in Chicago made their homes in storefronts, much like Independence. Unlike Independence, many have since received major upgrades.

Thoughout her 18-year tenure, Dempsey, who was replaced by Brian Bannon in 2012, spearheaded the construction of 44 new library buildings, some of which have come online since her departure.

Albany Park/North Park, Edgewater and Chinatown all boast the type of glittering new 21st Century facililties that Independence patrons have been clamoring for for years.

"We were told that the reason that we were dropped off the new library list years ago is because of some repairs and renovations that were done to the library," Bolociuch said. "Once this was done, it was listed as a renovated property, and our 100-year-old library was put to the bottom of the list for a new neighborhood library."

Her concern is that if the library's fire damage is repaired, Independence will once again drop out of contention for a new building.

Forces are rallying to make sure that doesn't happen.

On Friday, neighbors from Greater Independence Park and seven other civic organizations will hold a joint news conference with various elected officials to call for a new library.

There is at least one notable case of a library rising from the ashes of a fire: The Chicago Public Library itself was created in 1872 in the aftermath of the Great Fire, spurred by a donation of 8,000 books from Great Britain.

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