That’s what they said, over and over, at the libraries and rec centers I visited Thursday when I asked how they felt about the city’s victory in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case that was the main obstacle to badly needed repairs to their buildings.
“Fingers crossed,” said T. Kim Robinson, a children’s librarian at the Kingsessing Branch in Southwest Philadelphia.
It’s not that Robinson, who is 62 and has been a city librarian for 18 years, isn’t excited over the news that the state’s highest court decided in favor of the city’s soda tax, which will fund its Rebuild project. She is excited. Just cautiously so.
Look around her library. There’s the flaking ceiling that sheds chips of paint near the tables in the children’s section, and the aging computers in the cramped literacy room, where volunteers teach adults from 18 to 74 with second-grade reading skills.
There’s the “alleged elevator.” They call it that at the Kingsessing Branch because it’s so often broken that no one is sure it even exists. Robinson runs a program for kids with special needs in the community, but because of the small and ornery elevator, she goes to them in their homes.
There’s the feeble HVAC system that shuts down if a strong wind blows. Those days, the library has to close.
This is how it’s been all over the city for the last two years. Fingers crossed. Librarians and rec center leaders are some of the least cynical people on the planet, but the thought that Philadelphia could deliver on the $500 million Rebuild project is antithetical to anyone’s lived experience in these systems.
Though the tax has raised money — a projected $78 million for this fiscal year — the project stalled as the tax was challenged by the beverage industry and merchants. Now, with the court’s ruling, the city has an opportunity to finally put the shovels in the ground. The city also has a responsibility to make sure as many of those shovels as possible are wielded by minority workers from the communities these libraries serve. And Council has a responsibility to make sure we don’t revert to our old Philly ways — playing small-time politics on big-time issues.
The tax isn’t perfect. It has raised less money than projected. Small shop owners and lower-income Philadelphians bear a heavier weight than the wealthy. Funding Rebuild shouldn’t have required such a fight in the first place, but now we have to put these funds to use.
We must make these libraries and rec centers, which hold such outsize importance in their communities, places that are actually desirable to visit — sanctuaries not just because of their role in the community, but because of the actual building themselves.
In the meantime, the librarians cross their fingers.
In Fishtown, in a three-story library that was once a stable, they can’t even joke about the “alleged elevator.” It just doesn’t work, ever, since the rec center pool flooded the basement three years ago. Even in some neighborhoods that haven’t been ignored for decades, the libraries are breaking down.
“I’m excited,” the library manager, Sheila O’Steen, said of the recent court victory. “But is it really going to happen?”
At the Cobbs Creek library, despite all its vibrant programming — the cooking classes, the community meetings, the story times — branch manager Christina Holmes crossed her fingers in the hope that the Rebuild money would help them finally remove the heavy grates from the windows, the ones that patrons say make the place look like a prison.
Back in Kingsessing, waiting for the elevator to come, Robinson told the story of how, years ago, she worked in a children’s hospital as a pharmacy tech and saw a young boy with a gunshot wound to the head die in front of her. That’s when she decided to become a librarian: Because even if that boy had survived, she wondered, what kind of future would the city provide him?
At the rec center next door, rec leader Jamila Abdur led a group of kids through a rehearsal for their upcoming play, part of a citywide contest on fire prevention. They practiced on a wide staircase. “We have a beautiful stage upstairs,” Abdur said. “We just can’t use it.” The room is without air-conditioning, and stifling.
The kids came up with the play’s plot: A riff on Hansel and Gretel in which a pair of siblings run away from home after their father loses his job and their family risks eviction. They find themselves in the kitchen of a witch (with many fire hazards, in keeping with the contest’s theme). In the play, the family’s plight winds up being all a dream.
That’s what the rec center is, Abdur said. A place of escape. A place where, for a few hours a day, everything else can just be a dream. We owe these spaces to these kids — if not palaces, then at least not places held together by duct tape.