If patience is a virtue, then the library lovers of Mason Square are due an E-ZPass to zip them straight through St. Peter's gates.
Eight years ago this month, residents in the Springfield neighborhood received the jarring news that their branch library had been quietly sold to the Urban League of Springfield by the Springfield Library and Museums Association, the private group that had run the city's library system for decades. The secretive deal was an insult to the neighborhood, and kicked off years of community stress, legal wrangling and expense, some of it borne by city taxpayers.
But next week, that unpleasant chapter in Mason Square's history will come to a close as the neighborhood welcomes back its library. The celebration begins with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 13—the middle of National Library Week—followed by three days of special programs at the library, at 765 State St. It's an opportunity for residents to check out the facility, take part in programs for adults and kids—and, ultimately, to celebrate the sweet victory of a dedicated group of people who took on the city's power elite and fought until they got back what was rightfully theirs.
The sale of the Mason Square library stank from start to finish: the Urban League paid just $700,000 for the building, which had recently undergone a $1.2 million renovation—almost half of it funded through city-backed bonds. The SLMA had quietly arranged the deal without seeking public input or approval, despite the fact that the group received funding from city taxpayers. (Indeed, the very day the sale took place, members of an SLMA citizens' advisory committee asked about rumors of an impending sale, and were assured by the SLMA board's president that the stories were false.) In addition, Joe Carvalho, the president of the SLMA at the time, was also a member of the Urban League's board.
The sale provided even more impetus for a citizen-led campaign that was already underway for the city to take control of its libraries from the SLMA. In 2003, former Mayor Charlie Ryan—a leader in that effort—was elected mayor again, and promptly challenged the legality of the Mason Square sale. Ryan's city solicitor, Pat Markey, sued the SLMA over the sale and won a $334,000 settlement, to be used to help establish a new neighborhood library branch. (At the time of the sale, the Urban League had agreed to set aside a small portion of the building for library services. But that space—which some residents referred to as a "reading room"—was a pale shadow of the former facility.)
A search committee was established to find a new site, to be paid for with the settlement money as well as money from a private fund set up by a late resident, Annie Curran, to support library services in Mason Square. But the committee had trouble finding viable options in the neighborhood, leading to calls for the city to simply take back 765 State St. by eminent domain. In 2009, the City Council did just that.
Even after that vote, it still took the Urban League more than a year to vacate the building, Some residents complained that City Hall, under new Mayor Domenic Sarno, was allowing the agency to drag its feet; meanwhile, Urban League President Henry Thomas—who wields considerable political clout in the city, including as a campaign donor to city politicians—threatened that he might sue the city over the taking.
Finally, last November, the Urban League left the building—and plans for the welcome-back library bash kicked into high gear.
Mason Square's library has actually been open for a few weeks. But the official celebration of its long-overdue restoration will begin with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, April 13, at 10 a.m. Among the people making speeches will be city Library Director Molly Fogarty, Library Commission Chair Steve Cary, Sarno, state Rep. Ben Swan, and Ryan (whom Kat Wright, a member of the grand re-opening committee, calls "our guiding light"). Children from the Rebecca Johnson and DeBerry schools will sing and read. The ceremony will be followed by a reception and activities throughout the day, including tours and scavenger hunts.
More events are planned for Thursday and Friday, April 14 and 15, including programs for kids and teens, book talks for adults, information on volunteering at the library, plus a '50s-themed party on Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Community Room.
Kat Wright, who in addition to her work planning the celebration has been a long-time member of the Mason Square Library Advisory Committee, has already had the thrill of stepping into the library she and so many dedicated activists fought so hard to get back. "I've seen the refreshed walls, refurbished shelves, new carpeting, new computers, new tables and chairs and shelf units on wheels, the special space for teens, the renewed craft room, and the brightly painted 'Annie's Reading Porch' for kids," she told the Advocate. "All of it beautiful. But the best thing of all was the shelves loaded with books."
What was the first thing Wright did when she saw the new space? "What I did was weep. For joy."