Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Huge Turnout for East Library Opening

It was a truly an East Side event, and a crowd with tons of notables celebrated history in the making.

By - Nov 24th, 2014 05:22 pm
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Ribbon Cutting. Photo by Grace Fuhr.

Ribbon Cutting. Photo by Grace Fuhr.

“Your attendance speaks volumes about support for libraries,”
a standing-room-only audience of over 400 people heard from speaker Paula Kiely, the City of Milwaukee Librarian. She
 was addressing attendees at the opening of the East Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library Saturday, November 22nd.

Some 400 people huddled inside a tent erected on N. Cramer St. and, as she spoke, a line formed outside the tent as hundreds of Milwaukeeans waited for the ribbon to be cut so they could see the interior of the new mixed-use development located at what Ald. Nik Kovac called “the crossroads of the East Side.”

It says something about this city that the hottest ticket in town was the opening of a library. And it says something about Milwaukee that its innovative program of library construction will be a model for other cities. Library Science students, architects, developers and urban planners will almost certainly use the Milwaukee model as a template.

“It’s not just a library, but a gathering place for the East Side,” Kiely said. The new facility has a fireplace in a living-room-like setting, meeting rooms for collaboration, private study areas, a community room and a fantasy world for children, including a fabulous Lego zone.

Visitors can also “bring in coffee as long as it has a top on it, and you are welcome,” Kiely said. The Milwaukee Public Library system serves over 2.2 million visitors a year, Kiely noted, adding that number considerably exceeds the attendance at many other cultural and sports activities in town.

That which is in the library depended upon that which is above the library, Mayor Barrett reminded the audience. The 99 apartments of The Standard at East Library provided the key to the development of the new library, he said, reducing the development costs by millions of dollars.

How did we get to this point? A number of years ago, the city reluctantly determined that it would have to close the Villard branch of the library. Talks of the closing mobilized the neighbors, who decided to “fight back,” the mayor said. The neighbors said “no!” to the closing, and the problem of “how to support a library” didn’t go away. But the city had no funds to build a tax-exempt, single purpose building – – the model of neighborhood libraries since the glory days of the 1960s.

“An idea came that we’d have a mixed-use building,” the mayor recounted. The Villard facility was constructed with “Grandparent housing” above — apartments for grandparents who were raising their children’s children. (This is a growing demographic in impoverished neighborhoods.) “It was a magnificent success,” the mayor said, adding that his reaction was, “Wow! That worked. Let’s do it again!”

Whereas the Villard location was in an area troubled by declining property values and high rates of poverty and unemployment, “the dynamic on the East Side is much different. This is a valuable property. And I am happy to report it is back on the tax rolls,” the mayor said.

“Do you want to rent an apartment? They don’t have a lot of wild parties in libraries,” he joked. The mayor said, “this is about community and neighborhood. By 2020 every neighborhood library will be a 21st century library and learning center,” — and, significantly, on the tax rolls. The mayor was followed by Kovac, the East Side alderman and library trustee.

John Gurda. Photo by Michael Horne.

John Gurda. Photo by Michael Horne.

He began his remarks by thanking the mayor for his leadership on the library — and on the streetcar — and said the building, as developed, was better than he expected. He said he heard no complaints about it, and had none himself.
Kovac was followed by Milwaukee Public Library Board of Trustees President John Gurda. Gurda, a local historian, is perhaps one of the best customers of the library, Kovac said. “He does his research in the Zeidler Room of the Central Library, and his neighborhood library is Bay View,” Kovac said of the House Confidential honoree. 
Gurda, reading from prepared remarks, called the new library a “step forward and back to the future.”

The first neighborhood libraries were located in storefronts, and it was not until the 1960’s, when the former East Branch building was constructed that they were housed in standalone facilities.
(The first “East Branch” was opened in 1909 in a Plymouth Congregational Church at E. Wells and N. Van Buren streets; it moved to a storefront at 2022 E. North Ave. in 1912, where it served the community until the building at 1910 E. North Ave. was opened in 1968.)

Gurda was followed by Ryan Schultz of HSI Properties, the developer of the site. He said the project, which took only 15 months to build, “will serve this generation, the next generation and beyond.”
It was “an extremely challenging project,” on its tight urban site. “North Avenue traffic doesn’t slow down for a construction project,” he said.

The final speaker was Ryan Daniels, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Public Library Foundation. He reminded the audience that they have until December 21st to make a contribution to the library, and to ensure that “you can get your name on the wall of donors.” [To make your tax-deductible donation, click this secure link: http://mpl.org/support/. Call 414 286-8720 for more information.]

Scene in the Crowd

Among the attendees was Mike “Ringo” White, the great found-object artist and E. North Ave. resident whose work would be an ideal addition to the walls of the facility. Mary Schanning, an assistant city attorney who deals with real estate matters was in the crowd, preparatory to heading to the office for some weekend work, hopefully on some new and yet-unannounced city development project. Former Ald. Don Richards was in a front-row seat. He represented the Villard Library district in the past. Ted Bobrow caught the action in his role as a lively citizen, and Scott Weber walked down the street from his new apartment not far away. Ald. Terry Witkowski was one of the elected officials in the audience — but he was outside the tent. “He represents the South Side, so they should let him inside the tent,” the mayor joked.

Department of City Development spokesperson Jeff Fleming was present, as was Common Council President Michael Murphy, who spent some time chatting with Gurda. Ald. Kovac’s mom Thea Kovac was there, after touring the Marshall Building during its regular Third Friday Art Night series the evening before. Artists Ray Chi and Santiago Cucullu were both there. Each has an artwork as part of the project. Fellow art contributor kathryn e. martin (no caps, ala e. e. cummings) was not able to make it, librarian Kiely said, since she was at home tending to her days-old newborn. East Branch Manager Rachel Collins was radiant at the mention of her name and of recognition of her many months of work on the project.

Pat Small was there to promote his opposition to the County’s planned sale of O’Donnell Park to NML, saying the property is worth much more than the insurance giant is offering, and that selling a boondoggle like the O’Donnell park is still a mistake even if it is a boondoggle. Gallery owner and author Dean Jensen came by to take a look and to drop off a book he had borrowed. The ubiquitous Jeff Bentoff was there representing the Water Tower neighborhood, and Russ Drewry of Brady Street stopped by in part to talk with Kovac about the Pecoraro Sausage (“Pepperoni Cannoli”) building that he is considering buying from the city. Both the building and its legal condition are a mess. No surprise there. Sam McGovern-Rowen, who lost to Kovac in a primary in their first run for alderman was there with his family. Rowen now serves in a newly created position to lead redevelopment of the city’s branch libraries.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing of the event was the tremendous number of just ordinary folks who will make use of this building. Kids flocked to the computers, the learning niches, the books — and especially the Lego Zone.
 Though Kovac says he has no complaints about the library, I have one: Where is the Lego zone for adults? It’s not fair that the kids have one all to themselves!

Photo Gallery

More photos in our recent library tour.

Past Coverage

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