D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) secured $5 million in capital funds for the purchase of a building on or near Kennedy Street in Northwest that will be turned into a new Ward 4 library. (Shedrick Pelt/The Washington Informer)
D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) secured $5 million in capital funds for the purchase of a building on or near Kennedy Street in Northwest that will be turned into a new Ward 4 library. (Shedrick Pelt/The Washington Informer)

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As the D.C. Council moves closer to funding the construction of a new public library along the Kennedy Street corridor in Northwest, some people, like a Brightwood resident who asked to be identified as Ms. Smith, continue to express excitement about what’s to come for toddlers, students and other community members. 

In years past, gun violence and drug-related activity along Kennedy Street have been topics of discussion among Brightwood residents and law enforcement officials. 

That’s why Smith, a longtime Brightwood resident, said she welcomes such a project as a means of attracting more positive activity on Kennedy Street. She said a new library also helps people who’ve often had to travel more than a mile to check out books, print out documents, and use wifi to complete homework and search for jobs.  

“Some young people might not [want to] walk down South Dakota Avenue to Lamond-Riggs Library/ Lillian J. Huff Neighborhood Library or down Kansas Avenue to Petworth Library so [a library on Kennedy Street] is one way of engaging them,” Smith said while also mentioning Takoma Park Neighborhood Library as another option that’s out of proximity for Brightwood residents. 

“I think libraries also bring more positive adults to the neighborhood,” she continued. “It was a real surprise to hear about [the possibility of] the job training center [because] libraries are crowded with people looking for jobs. They have kept people up to speed on their tech skills.” 

Council Member Lewis George Secures a Win 

During the D.C. Council’s committee mark-up process for the budget, The D.C. Council’s Committee on Facilities and Family Services, chaired by D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), transferred $5 million in capital funds to the Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs, chaired by D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8). 

Those funds were allocated toward the acquisition of a building on or near Kennedy Street through eminent domain for the construction of a new library. An amendment subtitle also prohibits the use of funds to close, relocate or replace Juanita E. Thornton/Shepherd Park Library. 

Earlier this year, Brightwood residents pushed back against a proposal to relocate Juanita E. Thornton Shepherd Park Library to Walter Reed, saying they wanted to keep the library in its current location. Another concern centered on the relocation still not meeting the needs of Brightwood and Manor Park residents seeking a neighborhood library.  

As Lewis George continued to lobby D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to include a new Ward 4 library in her fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, Brightwood residents testified before the D.C. Council Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs in support of the idea. 

Bowser’s budget proposal ultimately didn’t include funding for a new library. In the end, it was the cooperation of Council member White, a fellow native Washingtonian, that sealed the deal for Brightwood residents in the end, Lewis George told the Informer. 

“[Council member White and I] know what it’s like to be in a community that’s underresourced,” Lewis George said. “Kennedy Street has been identified as an Opportunity Zone. We want people on Kennedy Street to have the same resources [as other places].” 

A Question of In-Person Attendance and Projects that are Underway 

In 1985, retired public school teacher Juanita E. Thornton led a “Books, Not Burgers!” campaign in response to plans to open a Wendy’s fast food restaurant on Georgia Avenue. Her efforts led to the construction of the Shepherd Park Library, which opened at the intended site of the Wendy’s one month before she died in 1990.

In 1992, the D.C. government renamed the library in Thornton’s honor.   

A facilities master plan released in 2020 recommended relocating Juanita E. Thornton Shepherd Park Library south of its current location to address a public library service gap in Brightwood Park, Manor Park and other surrounding communities in Upper Northwest — but not without significant community buy-in. 

A survey recently conducted by D.C. Public Library (DCPL) suggested that 58% of respondents wanted a relocation. 

DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan told the Informer that, given the mixed response to relocation, Juanita E. Thornton/Shepherd Park Library will most likely stay in place, though it has yet to be seen whether DCPL will move forward with replacing, modernizing or rebuilding the library. 

Since 2006, when D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams released a public library revitalization task force report, all of the District’s public libraries, except Juanita E. Thornton Shepherd Park Library and Chevy Chase Library, have been repaired, renovated or fully modernized. Southeast Library is gearing up for a full modernization this summer. 

Bowser’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal sets aside $25.2 million in capital funds for the full modernization or rebuilding of a Ward 4 library. 

However, an additional library, like what Brightwood community members are requesting, is not in the current master facilities plan. A DCPL official speaking on background said concerns primarily center on whether post-pandemic declines in-person library visits indicate permanent changes in customer behavior. 

Another hurdle is the Office of the Chief Financial Officer’s revised revenue estimates that show a continuous drop in revenue over the next few years. 

It costs $2 million per year to operate a public library in the District, with staff and books accounting for the majority of expenses. During the fall of 2018 going into the first quarter of 2019, DCPL recorded more than 51,000 visits to Juanita E. Thornton/Shepherd Park Library. 

Data collected from October to March show only 26,029 visits to the library. 

In speaking about the possibility of a new Ward 4 public library, Reyes-Gavilan said that, in addition to in-person library usage, he and the board also have to take into consideration the half dozen library replacement projects in Ward 5, 7 and 8 that will soon be underway. 

Reyes-Gavilan said that once completed, operating those libraries will require a total of 30 additional staff members. With the loss of 20 vacant back office positions in the mayor’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, he has counted the need for 50 new staff members. 

Even so, Reyes-Gavilan didn’t shy away from expressing his gratitude for District residents who are fervently pursuing a new library. 

“The decision about additional libraries is going to be a lot easier in a few years when we hopefully have a better idea about our funding, and a few of our buildings are underway or near completion,” Reyes-Gavilan said. “[We should also] finally have a better idea of what people want from libraries. I’ve got to focus on the health of the agency as a whole. I hesitate to call it a disagreement. It’s about the timing and positioning of these projects.”

Sam P.K. Collins photo

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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1 Comment

  1. Keep Thornton SHepherd PArk where it is and opn. Also build a library on kennedy street!

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