Library Rebirth in Steinbeck's Hometown

Dec 27, 2012

the Literacy Center at the new Cesar Chavez Library in Salinas

Around the world, the City of Salinas may be best known as the birthplace of John Steinbeck. So when a budget crisis nearly forced the closure of the city’s public libraries eight years ago, it made headlines everywhere. Today it’s a different story.  The community saved the libraries and this month it celebrates a rebirth with the re-opening of a library in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. 

At the Cesar Chavez Library on the east side of Salinas you’ll never hear anyone say, shhhhh.  Looking down the hall at the long line to the check-out counter, Librarian Don Gardener says first and foremost this is a place for the community to gather, “and to be here purely for the pleasure of their own company and to talk, and this is a good place to do that.  It’s comfortable. It’s safe,” said Gardener.  Earlier this month when the library re-opened after being closed for more than a year for a remodel, 3,000 people lined up in the rain just to get a peek inside.  A couple of weeks later, school is out on winter break and there’s not an empty seat in the place.  Among the shelves of books mothers sit with babies. and kids eagerly await their turn on the computers that line the wall.  Bardin Elementary School teacher Alberto Murillo reserved computers, so Bardin students can play math games, and test their reading skills during winter break.  When he did this at the old Cesar Chavez Library, it was a little tricky.  “I had a few teachers that brought in their laptops, and that’s how we were able to get our students testing. But right now they have all these computers and they have extra laptops for the students to use and this is making it so much easier,” said Murillo.

The old library left a lot to be desired. “It was crowded and old.  It was built in 1978. It didn’t have skylights.  It had low ceilings, and the colors were drab and the furniture was old, and there weren’t enough books or seating.  It was jam packed,” said Elizabeth Martinez, Director of the Salinas Libraries.  All that changed after a near $4-million remodel and addition that was paid for by grants, community donations and Measure V funds.  Measure V is half-cent sales tax voters passed in 2005 to keep the libraries funded for 10 years.  Then in the election this past November, voters sealed the fate of the library system by passing Measure E, which made the sales tax permanent.  But for Martinez, it’s the re-opening of the Cesar Chavez Library that proves the Salinas libraries are here to stay. “This library says to people that everybody matters in this community. This is in the east side, this is in the Alisal,” said Martinez.  The east side of Salinas has had more than its fair share of gang violence. The colors of the most predominant gangs in the city are red and blue.  That’s why the library’s teen tech center is purple.  “So this is neutral ground. Red and blue make purple. So for us this means that all teens are welcome.  Everybody is.  It’s purple.  We’re all here together,” said Martinez.

Across town at City Hall, Dennis Donohue is finishing his final hours as Mayor. Before he took office, he played a key role in passing Measure V, the sales tax that first saved the libraries.  Looking back he sees the story as one Steinbeck could’ve written.  “Things look like they’re down and out. Salinas was going to be help single handedly responsible for the decline of all Western Civilization because the hometown of John Steinbeck, one of America’s six Noble Laureates, the libraries were going to close,” said Donohue.  The California Library Association honored him for his role in saving the libraries, though Donohue says he knows full well this was a community effort.