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Independence Library Has Been Homeless for 120 Years: 'Enough,' Backers Say

By Patty Wetli | November 6, 2015 4:40pm | Updated on November 9, 2015 9:33am
 Supporters rallied for a permanent home for the Independence Library, closed following a nearby fire.
Supporters rallied for a permanent home for the Independence Library, closed following a nearby fire.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

IRVING PARK — The carpet is buckling, chairs are missing, books have been removed — that was the condition of the Independence Library before it was damaged by a nearby fire.

An extra-alarm fire gutted several businesses last week at 3534 W. Irving Park Road. Independence, which leases space in the adjacent building, is still standing, but officials have shuttered the branch until they can determine the status of the library's collection and the structure itself.

On Friday, a coalition of residents, civic organizations and elected officials launched a campaign to create a permanant home for the Independence branch, which has been housed in a series of temporary leased locations since its founding in 1889.

"The question here is, 'How do we reopen?'" asked Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). "I think there's an opportunity here ... to rebuild a world-class library."

The call for a new, permanent facility is something for which the community has been clamoring for decades.

"This Independence library has been a vagabond," said Anna Sobor, speaking on behalf of the Old Irving Park Association.

"We've got 126 years of excuses why we can't have a library," she said. "As of last week, we have nil. It's unacceptable."

Chicago Public Library is aiming to resume services as soon as possible, according to spokesman Patrick Molloy.

The library, one of the busiest within the Chicago Public Library system, serves residents in a region that extends from the Chicago River to Cicero Avenue and beyond.

"It's a staple in the neighborhood. We come here every week," said Rodney Smith, a parent with children at the neighborhood's Murphy Elementary.

Despite its lack of amenities, Independence serves as a community hub, supporters said, in large part because it's within walking distance of several schools.

"There's passionate learners in there," said Ald. Deb Mell (33rd). "This library has heart and soul, what it doesn't have is bones."

Among those attending Friday's rally was Darcie Wadycki, who spent more than a decade at Independence as part of the Teacher in the Library program.

"As poor as the facility is, the services were fine," she attested, pointing to the library's reputation for having one of the most heavily enrolled summer reading programs.

With the library closed for the foreseeable future, Wadycki said her primary concern was for the students who frequent Independence.

"The population that's going to suffer the most is the school-age kids," she said. "Lots of students do not have computers at home. They use the library's computers for homework and for fun — it levels the playing field with students who do have computers."

A Friends of Independence Library group formed in the 1980s to push for a lasting home. The upshot of members' efforts was the move from an even smaller storefront to the library's current address at 3548 W. Irving Park Road.

"What they offered us before this was a mobile unit," said Roberta Bole, president of the Friends of group. "Time has passed and we see all these new libraries."

"We have been and remain interested in working with the community and elected officials to find the best long-term solution for library services in the area," Molloy said.

A key question, particularly given budget crises at the state and local levels, is how to pay for a new library.

"Funds realistically don't exist right now," said State Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-40th), who's championed the library's cause for years. "Maybe [Gov. Bruce] Rauner wants a library named after him."

Jokes aside, Andrade noted that state funds had been pledged toward the library in the past, but were never released from appropriation.

Tax Increment Financing dollars might be one funding option to pursue, but Andrade said the first order of business would be for the city to obtain the land on which Independence sits.

"The important part is to secure that land. Then we'll work on obtaining funding," he said. "I don't want to overpromise. We're not going to have a new library tomorrow."

One of the disadvantages, Bole said, is that Independence's service area is split among several wards and lacks a single, powerful advocate in City Council — something Albany Park's new library had in Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th).

In fact, two of the area's three aldermen — Ramirez-Rosa and John Arena (45th) — are staunch opponents of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the third, Mell, just voted against the mayor's budget.

"It's not going to be easy," Bole said.

But the alternative — potentially losing the neighborhood's library altogether — is not an option, she said.

"This can't be shuttered," said Bole. "It's too important. We have too much to lose."

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