Bucktown public library: inside the cultural infrastructure that serves a changing neighborhood
The public library(CPL) as an emblem of Chicago was built in 1873 under the proposal of a Londoner, and expanded several times in the next one and half century to reach a total of eighty-one branches. While the libraries’ different styles of architecture and decoration mark visible historical shifts, their layout and space utility can reflect their intellectual identity. Similar to the CPL’s decisive transformation from a book-centered “warehouse to a modern, multipurpose community center” during the Depression years, the new branches that grew up later have been adjusting to meet the diverse needs of the changing neighborhoods in a big evolving city.
Though I haven’t had the chance to visit most of the libraries, the few branches I stepped into during a group-trip did leave interesting impressions and help me connect what I saw to what I read about. For example, the Bucktown-Wicker Park branch stands a two-story building at the east side of North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Its orange-red exterior blends well into the surroundings, while walls are decorated with teen’s art as well as public artworks, which concord with the overall style of that artsy district.
A Family Art activity was scheduled at 1 to 2 p.m. on September the third according to the public library’s official website, but on that day, I arrived there to find that I was the first person who came. The friendly lady in charge of the activities offered me a small pouch of ‘teen art kit’, and I could choose between coloring a T-shirt and doing a collage.
Organizing such activities shows part of the efforts the library has been putting into providing local teens with recreational choice, homework support, and emotional outlet. Printed black-and-white photos pinned on a board show scenes from the library’s most recent summer activity, where kids were holding their artworks and smiling to the camera. In a small room designed as a “Teen Space”, a kid was creating a butterfly model with a 3D printer, another was browsing videos on a computer. A third kid was sleeping on a table outside, a bulging backpack at his feet. Although the activities don’t seem to be running on a big budget, the quiet space, digital equipment and shelves laden with nicely bound teenage fiction and high-quality picture books make the library a desirable place for some refreshment and self-learning.
Just two blocks southeast from the library is the intersection of North Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue, where the Flat Iron art building is located and the atmosphere becomes noisy, vivid, commercial. As for that Saturday afternoon, I spotted more people coming in and out of the bookstores or a combined book-coffee-gallery in that area than in the nearby library. From my speculation, as the bookstores can offer fine social gathering places with metropolitan cultural experience, they suit the trend to beautify and gentrify the West Town, and their popularity benefits from the growth of tourism and worldwide cultural consumption starting from the late 20th century. The Bucktown branch and several other CPL branches which opened in the first decade of the 21st century are their complement, serving as infrastructure that offer not cultural commodities but universal education.
By offering equal access to information and facilitating the young generation’s extracurricular education, the Bucktown library whose appearance and decoration style generate from that of the district actually stands out from the West Town streets’ pervasive cultural consumption scene. It inherited such a role from the CPL, which has often modified its objectives since opening in 1871.
Still, almost all readers I saw there were African Americans, but unlike the Blackstone branch in Kenwood which I had visited earlier that day, the Bucktown branch didn’t have a section dedicated to African American cultural legacy. There was a section of Spanish books, though, and some 19th-century Polish art books that are not common among the standard library collection of canonized early modern-impressionist artists. Those details possibly reflect the Bucktown library’s consideration to address and incorporate the neighborhood’s various ethnic groups. The Polish art books could be part of private gifts from the Polish-American community inhabiting the intersection of Milwaukee and Division, the sharp point of the Polish Triangle. The array of bookshelves dedicated to Spanish literature seems to stress the West Town’s Latino populations. In the intermission of two World Wars, the Mexicans moved in the city as temporary workers. The Puerto Ricans came after WWII, with some of them settling down in the Near Northwest Side; but several decades later, the Latinos felt the pressure to move out as the ongoing gentrification raised the living costs around their neighborhoods. Those who could afford to stay or to move-in were mostly white middle class families as well as blooming artists, while remaining Latinos were becoming the minority and facing institutional discrimination around the 1980s and 1990s.
Novotny, Eric. “‘Bricks without Straw’: Economic Hardship and Innovation in the Chicago Public Library during the Great Depression.” Libraries & the Cultural Record 46, no. 3 (2011), p.271.
A surge of global tourism in the late 20th century and subsequent land revaluation based on constructed cultural significance is explained in: Pérez, Gina M. “The Other ‘Real World’: Gentrification And The Social Construction Of Place In Chicago.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 31, no. 1 (2002), pp.42-44.
“Beginning in 2000, the City invested an additional $44 million in neighborhood library construction. These capital improvement plans ensured that all areas of Chicago would be served by modern, fully equipped and inviting neighborhood and regional libraries”. “CPL History.” Chicago Public Library, https://www.chipublib.org/cpl-history/.
Betancur, John J. “The Settlement Experience of Latinos in Chicago: Segregation, Speculation, and the Ecology Model.” Social Forces 74, no. 4 (1996), p.1310.