A library in Ward 7 closed for renovations in February and will remain that way through at least the fall. But there aren’t any plans to replace its services in the meantime, and residents say the library’s closure will knock out a major pillar of the community that, in other places, might not be so vital.
Capitol View Library, located on Central Avenue SE in the Marshall Heights neighborhood, is one of three libraries serving the 70,000 residents who live in Ward 7. It’s where members of the community attend after-school and summer youth programs, exercise at classes like pilates and Zumba, access the internet, and hold community meetings for everything from civic groups to fraternal orders.
“It wasn’t just a place where books were stored. They had classes, we have our civic association meetings there, every other group I can think of has meetings there. I even saw a Masonic group having a meeting there,” said Keith Towery, chairman and CEO of the Marshall Heights Civic Association.
“In the morning, most times for that library, there’s already a line forming to sign up to use the computers,” Towery continued. “You’re taking way the ability of our residents to access the internet.”
“We also have many adults who don’t have computers at home,” noted a comment left after a different meeting about the library.
In communities like Marshall Heights, libraries can be a huge part of how residents access technology and the benefits that come with it. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the median income for households living east of the Anacostia River was just $34,000 in 2015 (compared to $75,600 for the city as a whole). This does not bode well for internet access in the area: The Pew Research Center finds that only 53 percent of households making less than $30,000 a year have broadband access at home.
DC is leaving the community around Capitol View without a library during renovations
The library closed for renovations on February 25 and is not scheduled to open again until the fall (Towery added that he was skeptical it will be that soon, in part because a stop work order was posted on the doors of the closed library earlier in April).
When Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray originally secured $10.5 million to renovate Capitol View Library’s interior, it included funding for interim services. Under Councilmember Yvette Alexander, funding dropped to $4 million, which meant shutting the library down for renovations without plans for interim service.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s most recent budget added $2 million more back to the project, bringing its budget up to $6 million. But that’s for a second phase of exterior renovations during which the library would stay open; it doesn’t solve the issue of funding interim services while the interior is being worked on. And the fact that the additional funding will go toward exterior renovations that will happen while the library is open means people would be working inside a very noisy library during exterior construction.
By comparison, a similar renovation project for the Palisades Library has a budget of $8.2 million.
And while the Dorothy I. Height Library is only a mile away from Capitol View Library, Towery explains it is not a viable alternative for people in the area. For people who don’t have cars, walking along the mile stretch of Benning Road in the summer heat is not feasible or safe.
Residents want more funding for interim services and books
The Marshall Heights Civic Association is currently working to make sure residents aren’t left without crucial services during the library’s renovation. That certainly adds up: One of the civic association’s first big accomplishments was convincing DC to build Capitol View Library in 1965.
Residents, with the civic association’s help, have left comments with the DC Public Library to make it clear that both renovation and interim services are sorely needed:
“Renovate as soon as possible,” implores one comment.
“Regarding no interim space during the renovation: What happens to children and others who need services during that time?” asks another.
“Each time the DC Public Library came, our residents asked if they could have interim services when they decided to remodel,” said Towery. “The first two meetings they glazed over it, oh we hear your concern, and the third meeting came and said ‘No we can’t do it, we didn’t get a resounding response from the community saying we wanted it.’”
“Instead of trying to tap the institutions that we have in the community to see if interim services could be taken there, they didn’t do that until we started putting pressure on them,” he continued.
DC had originally planned to renovate the nearby Benning Park Community Center this summer, which would have left an even bigger hole in community services in the area. The construction has now been postponed and is scheduled to start in the fall thanks in part to the civic association’s efforts.
According to Towery, DCPL has also started reaching out to churches and elementary schools in the area to arrange some interim services for the community. But these services don’t yet match what the library used to provide the community.
“They reached out to St. Luke’s Catholic Church so they can get interim services there. They’re still working out how many days a week they will be open to provide internet access to the community,” said Towery. “They’re also going to provide storytime there.”
The civic association is also advocating for additional money to close the library during the second phase of exterior renovations and hold interim services in a nearby building. The group is requesting an extra $1 million to run interim services during the exterior construction.
“They’re going to be working on the exterior part of the building, which probably means it’s going to be pretty noisy and not great conditions for studying. It doesn’t make sense to keep a library open under construction when it’s supposed to be a quiet place,” said Towery. “But DC is telling us no.”
Another request: more money to replace old books once the library reopens. Currently, only $50,000 has been allocated to buy new books for the library. The civic association is requesting a total of $150,000 to help restock the library once it opens again.
And last but not least, Marshall Heights Civic Association is asking DC to provide better signage for the library. Currently, only a pillar set back from the street labels the building a library. The only sign indicating that it’s Capitol View Library is just a small plaque near the entrance.
This is about more than just a library
Beyond the library services themselves, the civic association’s work is about calling out the inequities that continue to leave historically black parts of DC with fewer services and less funding than other parts of the city. For example, Ward 7 has suffered from inadequate bus service, and areas east of the Anacostia River have notoriously limited access to amenities like bookstores, supermarkets, and restaurants.
One of the civic association’s first orders of business: Get banners made so that people knew the library was closed at all. “When they closed down the library, they didn’t give us any banners to say it was closed,” said Towery. “They pretty much printed a piece of paper and taped it to the door.” (Update: A DCPL spokesman says there were plans for banners in the works before the civic association asked for them.)
Small things like a banner can send clear signals to a community about how much (or little) the city cares.
“The Marshall Heights story is probably the story of a lot of communities,” said Towery. “Due to discrimination, redlining, and a whole variety of things mainly centered around race, this was a community that a lot of pioneering African Americans came to to create a home.
“It’s a strong community. We’re invoking the pride and strength we had before and trying to change the narrative.”