A South Central neighborhood suffers from the loss of its community library

Tanvi Varma
May 22 · 6 min read
This photo features the old Florence Library. (Photo: Erika Rioverde)

Erika Rioverde loved the Florence Library so much, her voice reveals her emotions as she recalls her son Diego taking his first small steps in the toddler section. Her boys treasured it too. So much so, that the library was the reward for finishing their homework early.

That all ended in February when it was shuttered to make way for an affordable-housing development, and the “Florence Express Library” was erected in a trailer in a crowded parking lot as a replacement. The new library is an echo chamber of noises from the train and metro, which are adjacent to the park. Residents can still check out books — in limited quantities — and do what anyone living in a low-income community already struggling with resources would do at a library, but it’s just not the same.

“I told him this was the library,” she said, referring to the place where she has seen illegal gambling and repeated drug use. Diego didn’t like it, telling his mom, “No, I want to go to my library.”

“I feel like they’re stealing from me, as a child I went to this library, it’s not just my childhood memories you’re taking from me, but it’s my kids’ future,” said Rioverde.

This Florence Library has served as an essential gathering place for roughly 60,000 residents in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles since the 1970s. Florence-Firestone is an unincorporated community, just a few miles north of Compton. The high school graduation rate in the area is 41%, and the median income is about $34,000. Almost half of the residents are born outside of the United States. Latinos are 90% of the population, and African-Americans are 8.4%.

The Florence Library was once a 5,124-square-foot facility embellished by colorful murals with bright blue, red and orange waves. On one side it paid homage to Florence, Italy with statues, and the architecture of the region. The other side featured portraits of people resembling the African-American and Latinx residents of the Florence-Firestone area. Muralist Ernesto de la Raza finished painting the library mural in 2010 and called it “Faces of the Americas.”

“I honor the worker,” said de la Raza. “They’re the ones that don’t get no credit for their work,” he added.

Now the once heralded building is bombarded by trash and debris. The murals that once symbolized community strength and pride have been taken down. What is left are parking lot murals, barely visible beneath graffiti and gang tagging.

Community members explain what the library means to them.

The once-cherished library is now less than half its size and in a location that makes it harder on the people who really need it. Residents who used to be able to walk, or take the bus, are now forced to either drive, which is difficult because the parking is shared with people trying to access the park. Those who are walking from the neighborhood have to cross a dangerous alley, and then a bridge that has holes in it, said Rioverde.

The county promised residents that the Florence Express Library would be a temporary location, but they have not given any information about where a new one would be, and when it might be ready.

A librarian at the bungalow said in an interview that the county told her it could be two years until they get a new library.

For many people who have grown up in the neighborhood, the library was more than just a place to read books, it was a safe space for kids fleeing from dangerous situations.

“Many kids used the library to get away from violence and abuse. It was a safe space for them for a few hours a day,” said Isai Rea, who lived in the neighborhood until going to college at UC Berkeley.

Rea fell in love with the library at an early age, so much so that in high school, he spent his early teenager years volunteering there, and eventually became the president of a teen advisory panel. The library was a place for him to hang out with his cousins and friends as a child. From then on, he started building relationships with the librarians and library goers. To this day he comes back to visit the librarians he had bonded with as a teenager and child. Some of them are trying to make it to his college graduation this spring.

“Within this community you have students like myself and other students at UC Berkeley that went against all odds, used the resources at hand that we had at the library,” said Rea.

He believes those who don’t have that same access are now being cheated out of the opportunities that helped him succeed.

The Florence Library was an especially important place to the community because of the resources it provided for residents. One important resource was the computers, said Ashley Orona, one of the leaders of a community group for the Florence-Firestone neighborhood.

“This matters because we live in a community where a lot of people don’t graduate high school,” Orona said.

Now the library just has four computers for adults, and three for children. It used to have at least a dozen. This library serves 10 elementary schools, one middle school and two high-schools, said Yanel Saenz, the elected president of the community group.

Even at its finest, the Florence Library was considered to be one of the underserved libraries in the county, said Jonathan Pacheco Bell, contributing author of “A Paseo through Time in Florence-Firestone.”

“My biggest issue was the lack of transparency, and how they changed the plan. The place that was to be sold, the bottom floor was supposed to be the brand new modern library, and on top was supposed to be affordable housing for seniors,” said Rea. At the last minute, he said, “the plan was scrapped.”

The location of the temporary library in Roosevelt Park sparked protests so loud that on the library’s opening day, librarians had to play music to tune out the shouting. One of the protesters’ reasons for protesting was that they believe the new location is not as safe as the original location.

“On the grand opening day someone was in the park smoking weed and it just flushed the library to the point where someone thought someone was in the bathroom smoking weed. We could do nothing because that was the park, that’s the atmosphere of the park,” said community member Willie Willis.

Recently, a high-speed police car chase, spanning two counties, almost obliterated the library as the car crashed through the park fence to deviate from police.

Rioverde was in the library at the time of the chase. She got a phone call from her aunt, who lives in the neighborhood, about the police chase happening behind the library.

“I stayed inside with my kids even though they had baseball practice, because I wanted them to be safe,” she said.

Just within the span of a week, there has been a rape of a minor, two cases of grand theft auto, and robbery.

Rioverde says she’s used to hearing about crime in the neighborhood, but even she is surprised by what goes on near and at the park.

And, Roosevelt Park is where rival gangs, Florencia 13 and Crips, hang out, which could be dangerous for people who could become potential targets, said Orona.

Yet, Julian Zamora, community library manager, sees it differently.

“Our new location at the park is safe. People come to the library, by either walking or by car, and have not reported any incidents. There are County Sheriff’s who are assigned to Roosevelt Park, and if any issues arise, we contact them for assistance,” Zamora said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ team didn’t respond to questions after repeated requests for comment.

The closure of Florence Library has also affected local businesses that relied on customers who were once library-goers.

“Customers won’t come here anymore, workers would come here to get coffee in the mornings,” said Alondra Enriquez, worker at the Florence Bakery across the library.

Concerned residents are still gathering signatures for a petition that is over 7,000 people strong. The Florence-Firestone Community Leaders group has also started a page on Facebook called, “Save Florence Library,” which provides updates on the library, and ways people can get involved in protesting.

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles. Subscribe to our newsletter! http://eepurl.com/mw1A5

Tanvi Varma

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Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles. Subscribe to our newsletter! http://eepurl.com/mw1A5

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