As library supporters booed Mayor Nutter and called him a "liar" at City Hall yesterday, he announced that with outside financial help, the city plans to transform the 11 library buildings slated to close after tomorrow into "knowledge centers."
Appearing unfazed by the catcalls, Nutter - flanked by staff and supporters that included four members of City Council - pledged that free computer access will be at the heart of the new public centers.
The city will lease the buildings to the new operators, which include community groups, foundations, corporations and others that would provide funding and staffing for the facilities, Nutter said.
Five organizations already have offered to create programs, and as soon as all 11 sites are spoken for, Nutter said, details about the services that the centers are to provide will be made public.
Shutting the libraries will save $8 million a year and $40 million over five years, city officials have said. The move is part of the effort to make up what is estimated to be at least a $1 billion shortfall in the city's five-year financial plan.
"This is a very bad situation," Nutter said. "We've come upon this economic crisis. We didn't create it, it was created by others."
He insisted that concerns about the libraries that were voiced by citizens during eight community meetings were heard and taken into consideration.
Not so, said Eleanor Childs, 62, a teacher at Montessori Genesis II, a small private school in Powelton Village.
"This is really a crime against the people," the library backer said after the news conference. "It's a civil-rights issue, this is a human-rights issue. This is not a budget issue."
The Charles L. Durham Library, which Childs' students visit each week, is one of the 11 branches scheduled to close.
Nutter also announced that the LEAP (Learning, Education and Play) after-school programs housed in the 11 closing libraries will be relocated to nearby recreation centers, schools and other facilities on Jan. 12, the day the program is scheduled to restart for the new year.
Eight of the new LEAP sites are within three blocks of the old sites, Nutter said, adding that one is eight blocks away but in a residential area. Nutter said that on Saturday he walked from the libraries to the new locations to gauge the distances.
In all, more than 50 federally funded LEAP sites around the city provide more than 80,000 1st- through 12th-grade students with homework assistance, computer help, workshops, mentoring and other enrichment activities from September to June.
Nutter said that books and other materials likely would stay at the new knowledge centers, but computers leased by the city would not remain, and the new operators would equip the centers with new ones.
The dozens of teachers, students and other protesters who packed the news conference were unimpressed by what Nutter had to say.
At 9:30 a.m. today some of them, members of several groups calling themselves the Coalition to Save the Libraries, planned to gather outside City Hall to "indict" Nutter.
"I think it's a compromise that we cannot afford to make," Abby Miller, 34, a coalition member, said of the knowledge centers.
"Community-run centers don't have the support that libraries have. They don't have trained librarians. It's a substitute for something that every neighborhood deserves."
The library issue has led City Council members to take sides.
Council President Anna Verna and members Frank DiCicco, Marian Tasco and James Kenney stood with Nutter at yesterday's announcement.
"I don't think I have any choice but to support the mayor," said Kenney. "People need to understand this is an international economic meltdown. We are in two wars and our economy is falling apart. . . . Screaming at the mayor in a rude way when he's trying to do his best to keep it all afloat, I think is crazy."
On the other side of the issue are three Council members who've filed a lawsuit to stop the library shutdowns: Bill Green, Jack Kelly and Jannie Blackwell.
"All of my communities are united, whether it be Cobbs Creek or Mantua, whether it be Powelton Village in University City," said Blackwell. "All my neighborhoods, all races and income groups, everybody."
"Last week before the issue of the lawsuit came up," Blackwell added, "I had teachers from my area saying, 'We're ready to go to jail.' " *