Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Opponents' day in court

TANYA WESTBROOK, an aspiring writer in search of a job, bought her house in part because the Logan branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is across the street.

TANYA WESTBROOK, an aspiring writer in search of a job, bought her house in part because the Logan branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is across the street.

Westbrook and six other library patrons asked a Common Pleas Court judge yesterday to halt Mayor Nutter's plan to close the Logan branch and 10 other libraries after tomorrow due to the city's serious budget woes.

The patrons, along with the union that represents librarians, say that a 20-year-old ordinance prohibits the mayor from closing city buildings without approval by City Council. Three Council members — Bill Green, Jannie Blackwell and Jack Kelly — filed a similar lawsuit. Judge Idee Fox is considering the cases together.

Nutter's staff says that the 1988 law conflicts with the City Charter. City attorneys are expected this morning to put on their case.

Westbrook, a single mother of two sons who also frequent the Logan branch, testified that she uses the library Internet access to search for work and books for inspiration for her poetry. Her family would have to walk six or seven blocks to the Greater Olney branch if Logan closes. Westbrook said her sons are not allowed to walk there alone because one of them was jumped by neighborhood youths last year.

Fox's courtroom was packed with pro-library spectators, some who sat on the floor and in the jury box. Many snickered when Westbrook was asked if she could replace library services with the local Barnes & Noble and Internet access with the local Starbucks. Opponents of the closures complain that they hurt the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Susan Feenan lives two blocks from the Fishtown branch, also scheduled to close. Feenan testified that she could drive her three young daughters to another library but prefers her local branch, where she volunteers, because it is a "melting pot" of different types of people.

"Fishtown is a quirky place," she said. "It's the one place where all these people come together."

Maryanne McHale teaches her 5th-grader son at home, using the nearby Holmesburg branch a couple of times a week as a resource for his avid reading. They have their regular walks to the branch timed to 12 minutes. Using another branch would require two SEPTA bus rides. That's $8.80 a week in fares.

"It sounds small but it's well over $400 a year," she added.

Sharon Vann can see the Queen Memorial branch, at 19th and Federal streets, in South Philadelphia, from her window, allowing her 11-year-old daughter to visit there alone. The next closest branch is on Broad Street, eight blocks away.

"I wouldn't feel safe allowing her to walk there," she testified. "This library is the heart of the neighborhood. It's so much more than a place to house books."

The library closures, along with Nutter's plan to eliminate seven Fire Department companies, have emerged as the most controversial portions of his efforts to deal with an estimated $1 billion shortfall in the city's five-year financial plan.

The result has been an emotional outpouring that had turned angrily toward the new mayor. Nutter was heckled yesterday at a City Hall announcement that after-school homework programs would continue in neighborhoods where libraries are closing. A coalition has been aggressively seeking attention for a "people's indictment" of the mayor, to be announced this morning in response to the library closures.

In court yesterday, Rev. Terrence Griffith, vice president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity, warned that the closures would mean more work for his fellow pastors, especially as a faltering economy increasingly drives congregants to the church.

"We know that the church will have to pitch in if these libraries are closed," Griffith testified.

City attorneys repeatedly sought to disqualify Griffith, pastor at the First African Baptist Church at 16th and Christian streets, from testifying as an expert on the social impact of library closings. Griffith at one point made it easier for city attorneys to challenge part of his testimony by saying that he takes his family to a Barnes & Noble bookstore because he can afford it.

"I don't personally use a library," Griffith added. *