By David Cheng
More than half a century has passed since Boston’s Chinatown residents last had a place of their own to just sit down and read. Instead of theaters that lined Washington Street in the 1950s, today there are restaurants, grocery stores and street vendors — plenty to satisfy an appetite, but books have been a different story.
On October 14, a long-awaited vision for a Chinatown Library finally became reality. With 3,000-square-feet of space contributed for three months by Archstone Apartments the Chinatown Storefront Library opened at 640 Washington St. It will rely on donations from publishers and area families. Supporters hope this project can lead to a more permanent home. It already won an extra month from Archstone, when it extended the lease.
“The project was conceived as a temporary library for several reasons. One was to activate vacant space along Washington Street. The Boston Street Lab, one of the producers of this project, has a mission to take vacant spaces and use them in more creative ways to bring more street life. So the idea was to really partner with an organization that could actually donate space,” said Amy Cheung, the library’s program manager.
“The other idea is that we actually want the city at one point to step in and open a permanent library so this is almost an experiment or demonstration project to show to the city and residents and the supporters what the potential of the library could be –but we’re not here to provide permanent services.”
Six years ago, the Chinese Youth Initiative, a branch of the Chinese Progressive Association, decided that a library was vital but missing resource in Chinatown. Their participation only went as far as getting the library idea launched. After that, a team of the Boston Street Lab, Friends of the Chinatown Library, and city’s Department of Micro-Urbanism raised funds for the venture, Cheung said.
“I think a library in Chinatown is incredibly important because it serves several different functions. It serves as a social meeting space for people, it serves as sort of the front line place for people to get resources. It serves as a place for people to get books and materials, reading resources, and right now Chinatown doesn’t have a library so I think there’s been a big gap for many years,” she added.
A large gap indeed.
The last time a library branch in Chinatown opened its doors was the same year Elvis Presley first broke into the United States music charts and the only time a pitcher threw a perfect game in the World Series. The Tyler Street branch had closed in 1938, drawing protests and briefly reopened from 1951-56 , before it was demolished to make way for construction of the city’s Central Artery elevated highway — since replaced by the Big Dig‘s underground roadway.
But some residents don’t think the new library is a good idea.
“I don’t think that they put it in the right spot. I mean just from experience of living in Chinatown I haven’t seen a lot of teenagers wandering around the city, at least around this area and I know the history of this area being the Combat Zone and all,” Tom Beauregard, a Chinatown resident.
“Yeah it’s cleaned up, but just from experience I’ve had people ask me if I wanted drugs just by walking on Washington Street right by where the new library is. If I was a parent I don’t think I would want my kids hanging around that area regardless of the time of day.”
With school libraries available to students and the Internet offering research help everywhere, around-the-clock, there are some skeptics but response to the new library has been overwhelming, said Sam Davol, who coordinated the library project with Boston Street Lab.
“I think it’s great because I don’t think anybody in Chinatown would want to go down to Copley to go down to the library anyway, especially kids. So it gives them a place that’s close by to learn and get off the streets,” said Hunter Hughes, an Emerson College student and current resident of Chinatown said. “I mean, could it be used for anything more useful? Honestly, not that I know of. I think education for kids is very important.”
Chinatown Library Slideshow
(photos by David Cheng)