By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“The old L.A. Public Library burned down/that library downtown/and with it went/a large part of my/youth.”
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster
(Click to enlarge)
THE LIBRARY IS UNDER FIRE AGAIN — this time from the bean counters — and, although Bukowski is dead, his old Hollywood bungalow figures into one of the stranger stories to come out of City Hall in a while, a tale about outraged citizens rising up and scoring a rare, feel-good victory over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his minions.
Only trouble is, the triumph may be largely a mirage, if some savvy observers are right. It might be just another case of a well-known and neatly orchestrated political gambit to stick it to the masses without their knowing it.
The drama involved a proposed $1 library-book fee to help the city cope with its staggering budget deficit, now tabulated at $406 million. The fee, if adopted, would have essentially destroyed the cherished notion of a free public library by forcing patrons to cough up a buck every time they special-ordered a book from another branch. In the sprawling Los Angeles Public Library system, a network of 72 mostly small outposts, transfers make up a good chunk of the 15 million books checked out annually, meaning lots of people were going to have to pay — or stop reading.
How the fee idea came about remains a mystery. No one wants to own up to such a bad idea now, though ostensibly it began with City Librarian Fontayne Holmes and staff. It won a very quiet preliminary endorsement in March from the Library Commission — all mayoral political appointees — before going to Villaraigosa and the City Council for review alongside a boatload of other fees and taxes now in the headlines.
The book levy caught the attention of bibliophiles, including Richard Schave, a 39-year-old Lincoln Heights tour operator and amateur historian. Schave and his wife, Kim Cooper, had fought to preserve the Union 76 “ball” — a classic example, they say, of gas-station Googie architecture — and then worked to get Bukowski’s former home on De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood declared a historic landmark. (See Matthew Fleischer's stories here and here.)
Perhaps serendipitously, at the same hearing where the Bukowski protective status was granted, Schave was horrified to hear council members blithely discussing a matter that would have appalled the iconic “poet laureate of Skid Row” — the proposed book charge.
“The fire was bad enough,” says Schave, alluding to the 1986 fire that Bukowski wrote about, which destroyed much of the spectacular downtown Main Branch library, which was later rebuilt. “This is like setting fire to the library again, intentionally, because they’re going to make more of the books inaccessible.”
Schave immediately blamed the man pushing hardest to raise fees and taxes — Villaraigosa. “The problem here,” he says, “is that the mayor has deluded himself into thinking that the library has to generate income. That’s the most absurd thing in the world. The library’s job is to be the library. Free ideas, free books are a cornerstone of mature, modern cultures.”
So he and Cooper decided to whip up a firestorm of their own, launching a save-the-library Web site — www.savelapl.org — aimed at putting pressure on Villaraigosa and the library administration.
In scarcely a week, the site funneled more than 800 impassioned e-mails to the mayor and head librarian, many from single parents, the elderly and low-income readers. Last Friday, yielding to the onslaught, library commissioners abandoned the $1 fee in favor of raising the fines for overdue books — from a quarter to 30 cents.
“This really caught us by surprise,” library spokesman Peter Persic says of the backlash. “If we had anticipated this kind of sentiment on the part of the public, we never would have suggested the fee.”
If true, that’s quite a commentary on how out of touch L.A.’s politicians and bureaucrats really are with the concerns of the average citizen.
BUT SOME OBSERVERS, astute to the budget wars, say the dubious plan, so hastily scuttled, smacks of an age-old tactic known in some circles as a “Mount Rushmore” ploy. In short, politicians who want to raise taxes and fees float unbelievably obnoxious ideas they know will never fly, in order to make the real tax-hike proposals still to come seem palatable.
“In Washington, D.C., they call it the ‘Washington Monument syndrome,’” says Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a former congressional aide. “Inside the Beltway, everyone knows it. What happens is, [elected officials] say, ‘We have to save money — let’s close the Washington Monument.’ It’s something very visible, so people say, ‘Oh, my God!’” Faced with the unspeakable, they are more inclined to agree to other taxes.