Back of the Yards Residents Push Back Against Plan to Merge New Library with Public Housing Project

Some residents in Back of the Yards are pushing back over a proposal that would incorporate a new public library into a public housing project.

For the past 10 years, the community’s only library has shared a space with the Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School.

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Locals have expressed concerns over the lack of access they have to the current branch. Some residents said not everyone feels safe visiting this location because of gang tensions. Some said the location’s lack of amenities, such as parking, has made it difficult for the elderly to use. Others said students are restricted from using the library during school hours. 

Community organizer Jorge Agustin is one of multiple residents who has been advocating for a free-standing library.

“I was a youth myself growing up in the neighborhood,” Agustin said. “Accessibility was a really big thing for me, too, because there was a time between 2011-2013 when I was in high school that there was no library in the community.”

“My two sons went to Back of the Yards high school, and they didn’t have the privilege to use the library as part of their school,” parent Consuelo Martinez said. “They would spend their time doing their projects in the hallway, classroom or our home.”  

Martinez is one of several parents who formed Luchando por La Biblioteca: fighting for a library. Their efforts secured them $15 million in state funding to help build an independent library. Two years later, city officials still haven’t finalized a location.

“The issue now is that we have advocated for a standalone library,” parent Janet Tapia said. “Now all of a sudden the city is throwing us a curve ball this past summer. They said they’re thinking of having a co-location so, once again, they want us to share a space.”  

Tapia is talking about a new development coming to 46th Street and Ashland Avenue. The project is set to bring affordable housing, a performing arts theater and the new headquarters for the Back of the Yards neighborhood council. The organization’s president, Craig Chico, said co-sharing the space with the library will only benefit the neighborhood.  

“Some people of the south side of 47th street won’t travel much further beyond the north side of 47th to get to the library because of, unfortunately, I hate to say this, but it’s not necessarily safe,” Chico said. “So safety is our No. 1 concern.”  

Chico said his proposal is a central location for the neighborhood’s African American and Latino populations.

“All four sides of the library will be independent; they can design it any way they want,” Chico said. “This is their own private deck so there’s going to be all these amenities and space. Right now, it’s double the space that exists here at the high school.” 

But members of Luchando por la Biblioteca said Chico’s proposal does not address concerns they have regarding parking, security and the library space requirements.

“So far he has only given us a plan that shows us a space under 10,000 square feet, and the city promised us that we were going to get 16,000 square feet,” Tapia said. “He wants to build this development with 100 units of affordable housing and other businesses. The space can only hold so many parking spots. That’s an issue we currently have with our current library.”

There have been community meetings surrounding the new library. Financially, Chico said, the proposed location will bring the library to the community faster.  

Residents said the back and forth has been exhausting — but they won’t stop fighting.

“The project is nice,” Martinez said, “but we want our own independent library in another space because here in the neighborhood there’s so many empty lots that look ugly and need to be occupied with resources the community really needs.”  

Resident Jasmin Pizano questioned why the community can’t have both: a multi-use affordable housing development and a standalone library.  

“I would want to ask the city: Why is it so hard to find local solutions when people are coming to you with solutions?” Pizano said. “Why is it so hard to believe that we need to safeguard the neutrality of a standalone library?”   

Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs for the Chicago Public Library, issued a statement that said, in part: “Throughout the planning process for a new library over the past 14 months, CPL and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) have led robust community engagement, seeking input and ideas to help shape the future library branch in Back of the Yards. This included conducting a survey that received more than 300 responses, seven neighborhood roundtable meetings, a library listening session and a Visioning Workshop. … We look forward to continuing these discussions, as we determine a location for this library that serves the entire community.”

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