Florence-Firestone Stands Up for its Library, Lays Down the Foundation for a Movement

A community puts it foot down when the rush to meet the needs of one set of underserved groups comes at the expense of another

A young community activist-in-the-making led chants at the rally for the Florence Library this past September 5. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A young community activist-in-the-making led chants at the rally for the Florence Library this past September 5. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“It’s beautiful to see a lot of community members out here today! You’re out here fighting for your community!” Ashley Orona exclaims through a megaphone to the boisterous crowd squeezed onto the narrow sidewalk along a busy Florence Avenue.

Dozens of protesters had gathered at the site of the now-demolished Florence-Firestone library September 5 to demand County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and affordable housing developer AMCAL reinstitute the library in the plans for the affordable housing project now slated to be built there.

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Residents and supporters crowd the length of the block where the Florence-Firestone library used to stand (at 1610 E. Florence) to demand that the county restore their library at its original site. Though the library had moved spaces a few times in its early years as it grew, it was one of the oldest in L.A., dating back to 1914 (with about 50 of those years spent at this site). Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The original plans for the site put forth by AMCAL in 2016 had included a 10,000 square foot library, with renderings labeling it the “Florence Avenue Mixed Use Apartments and Library” project.

In its 2016 recommendation for the approval of the project, the County Department of Regional Planning had also cited the library’s inclusion in the plans as helping the project meet key goals in the county’s Strategic Plan, including that of Making Investments that Transform Lives. And at the January, 2017, Board of Supervisors meeting where the project was approved, Alex Pratt of AMCAL had declared how “thrilled” AMCAL was to partner with both the county and the County Library Group to build such a unique project, given how vital libraries were to communities, more generally, and how packed with children Pratt had observed the Florence library to be [see p. 221].

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Rendering of the first floor library taken from the Department of Regional Planning’s January, 2017, report on the project, found here. The project will still feature 116 units of senior affordable housing, but will be home to a Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services office instead of a library.

Just five months later, however, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas would introduce his own motion at a Board of Supervisors meeting, announcing that the “Florence-Firestone Community Service Center (CSC) appear[ed] to be a more suitable location to establish a modern and larger public library to serve the needs of the surrounding community.”

The motion effectively both yanked the library from the project and transferred it to a site just under a mile away (7807 Compton Avenue), where it would actually be smaller than the one proposed in the original project. Not larger, as claimed. Instead of the 10,000 square foot library with a community room seen above, the motion states the CSC building can accommodate a “7,100 square foot public library on the ground floor, and a 2,000 square foot state-of-the-art community room that would be shared with WDACS [the Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services] on the upper floor.”

The advantage of this site, the motion continues, is that “renovation of this [CSC] facility could be completed at substantially less cost than building a brand new public library as part of the Project, while still accommodating the proposed increased square footage for the new library and maintaining WDACS’ current programming levels.” It would also give the county the opportunity to relocate a district office of the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RR/CC) to a storefront in the county-occupied building at 8300 S. Vermont Avenue that has been vacant since the building was completed in 2006.

In return, AMCAL would pay the Los Angeles County Development Authority (LACDA) $1 million to facilitate the relocation and renovation of the library while agreeing to include a nearly 2,000 square foot WDACS workforce development center in its project plans (leaving the unused square footage that would have gone to the library potentially available for commercial retail or other revenue-generating uses, it would appear).

In other words, the shuffling of sites seemed to be more intended to meet the immediate needs of the county than those of the residents.

Ridley-Thomas did little to discourage that interpretation when he concluded his 2017 motion by asking his fellow supervisors to find that the Florence Library parcel “is not currently needed for any County purpose” to justify the transfer of the property to LACDA – something community members have since argued is a sign he sees no value in either the library or them.

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Residents of the unincorporated Florence-Firestone community feel like they are often left behind and are frustrated with how little leverage they have when it comes to holding elected leaders accountable. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A grassroots movement gears up to engage change

It was not surprising to see the Florence-Firestone community’s needs and demands being so blatantly ignored, say many of the rallygoers.

As an unincorporated community aware that it is likely best known to outsiders for being home to Florencia 13, as life-long resident Juan Carlos Valadez puts it, it is accustomed to being devalued and pushed aside.

The speed of the changes the community is currently experiencing, however, is new.

Concern about just how rapidly things were shifting and how little effort the county had put into keeping residents informed was what had originally driven Orona, and her co-organizer of the rally, Yanel Sáenz, to first get involved in civic affairs when they returned home after college. Within months of attending their first meetings, the natural born leaders had gotten themselves elected executive board members of the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders. They left that body earlier this year to form Juntos Florence-Firestone Together.

The library cause is their first major action, Orona and Sáenz say, but it won’t be their last.

The iconicness of the Florence sign rivals that of the Happy/Sad Foot. Source: Google maps
Renderings for the new 192-unit project suggest the iconic “Florence” sign seen here will be salvaged and hung over the entryway (see image below). Source: Google maps

More projects are in the pipeline, including the replacement of the car wash next door to the library (above) with 192 units of mostly market-rate housing (below).

It’s a proposal that is wildly out of step with the realities of the surrounding community, where the median income hovers around $30,000.

And the slapping of the iconic “Florence” sign on the entryway of housing that would be inaccessible to most would transfer the place-making power of the sign away from long-time residents to better-off newcomers.

Click image to visit original instagram post.
Click image to visit original instagram post.

But the proposal is also something of a head-scratcher.

Orona and Sáenz say they first got wind of it last month, after a developer showed up at a community meeting with packets describing the project.

It proved difficult to track, however, given that the address developer Metro Florence, LLC listed on the handouts to residents (1662 Florence) is different than the one the project is listed under in the EPIC-LA system (7220 Maie).

County records for the project describe a seven-story mixed-use development with 5,500 square feet of ground floor commercial retail space, a total of 214 surface and below-ground parking spaces, and 20 percent of the 192 residential units set aside as affordable. The records are also inconsistent, however, indicating varying percentage combinations of Low- and Very Low-Income units on different parts of the same file.

And contrary to the information residents received (below), the project is on county land and therefore not eligible for the Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) program – an L.A. City effort to incentivize density and affordability within a specific distance of transit hubs by granting developers a zoning change to build higher if the project includes a certain percentage of affordable units.

Even it had been TOC-eligible, the developer had low-balled the number of affordable units it was planning to provide, basing the percentage on the units that would have been permitted without the zoning change (instead of the 192 units in final proposal). [Were the county to grant the developer’s request, it would likely require a higher percentage of affordable units, particularly for a project that size.]

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Screenshots of the information given to residents by the developer. Images courtesy Juntos Florence-Firestone Together [Click to enlarge]
None of which instills confidence in a community wary of the changes recent updates to the community plan are intended to usher into the area.

Coupled with the loss of the library, it feels like a gateway to the community is being wrenched from residents’ grasp before they even knew it was up for grabs.

“We’re going to have to keep fighting and keep people in power responsible for what they are doing because this is our community!” Orona tells the crowd after ticking off the list of pending changes in the area.

Whose community?” she cries.

Our community!” shout the protesters.

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Ashley Orona, co-organizer of the September 5 rally, leads the crowd in a call and response. Standing with her are residents and area teachers who came out to support their students’ access to libraries. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Competing narratives collide

Unfortunately, the statement from Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in response to the September 5 protest once again ignores the community’s core concerns.

It frames the community as a barrier instead, implying they do not grasp the urgency of the housing crisis, and suggests they are being unreasonable for rejecting the library site the county had chosen. By way of a concession, the statement says Ridley-Thomas has hired a real estate consultant and hopes the community will now partner with the supervisor’s office in searching for alternative sites.

It’s a small step forward from a community meeting in July, where Orona and Sáenz say the county had spent most of its time telling the community why the library couldn’t be moved to other locations.

But given that the community had never objected to the affordable housing project in the first place, the supervisor’s continued efforts to paint his actions in a more favorable light are troubling.

It is indeed true some have voiced concerns about who the AMCAL project is for, given that much of what counts as “affordable housing” would be out of reach of most Florence-Firestone residents (see image and explanation below). And some have asked why the project specifically targets seniors – a group that comprises about five percent of the population of a largely Latinx community which tends to take its elders in. [Half of the 116 units will be reserved for Very Low-Income seniors, while the other half will serve those with special needs, including those with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness.]

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With just over half AMCAL’s units at the library site being aimed at those earning 50 or 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), residents have raised concerns about whether the units will be truly affordable to those in Florence-Firestone. If the minimum income needed to qualify is guided by the requirement that residents pay no more than one-third of their income in rent, the special needs tenants would likely need to earn between ~$2,400 and $3,000 a month to qualify for the one bedrooms set at 50 or 60 percent AMI. Source: Florence Apartments’ tax credit application

But their real concern had always been the removal of the library plans from the project, not the housing.

The failure to consider community needs when it came to such a vital resource and the subsequent lack of transparency around that decision had left them wondering why they – the residents of a historically marginalized community – had to incur harm so that the county could pat itself on the back for assisting other marginalized people.

They aren’t alone – in Echo Park, low-income residents of color who rely on El Centro del Pueblo just watched councilmember Mitch O’Farrell successfully argue that affordable housing was more important than their children’s need for a playground and the programming El Centro was able to provide them on that lot.

In this case, however, the supervisor was aided by efforts to streamline affordable projects.

Because of its affordability and proximity to transit, the AMCAL project had qualified for an exemption from the environmental review process, allowing it to bypass a longer public approval process. Streamlining of that nature can often be a good thing with regard to keeping costs down and getting affordable housing built faster.

But because the county had made a unilateral decision to change the plans after they were approved in 2017 and did little, if any, additional outreach in the interim, most residents wouldn’t learn the library was due to be demolished until just days before it shut its doors for good this past February 16.

The confusion was captured in the testimony of lone resident and self-described “library cheerleader” Willie Willis, who showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting on February 12 to offer public comment. The library wasn’t on the agenda, but she wanted the supervisors to know how important it had been to her growing up and to ask why she was hearing talk of a library that served nearly a dozen area schools being replaced with stores. [see p. 247]

The next day, Orona and Sáenz say nearly 80 people showed up to a meeting with AMCAL to express their anger regarding the loss of the library and to decry its temporary relocation to Roosevelt Park. Not only would the express library be smaller and have fewer computers, the fact that the park runs along the border between two gang territories and often attracts unhealthy activity would make access more fraught.

Parents and library patrons had demanded to know why they hadn’t been consulted about the fate of such an important resource, Orona and Sáenz say, but were instead made to feel like it was their fault for not having kept up with a process that had deliberately been streamlined away from public channels.

It wouldn’t be until three days later – the day the library closed its doors – that parents would finally report receiving their first official notice in the mail regarding the library’s relocation.

Would the county have even sent the letters out at all if the community hadn’t been so vocal?

Orona and Sáenz didn’t think so.

So they decided to be louder.

They continued to push the online petition they had launched to save the library – racking up thousands of signatures – and led a small protest at the opening of the express library two weeks later. [Click on the image below to visit the original instagram post]

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In March, Orona, Sáenz, and a handful of residents showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting to voice their disappointment over the lack of transparency and to ask Ridley-Thomas to consult with the community on the future of the library [p. 170].

They returned again in July, after a disappointing community meeting where they say representatives from the county and the library system told them that there would be no more community meetings regarding the project unless the residents organized one themselves. Worse still, say Orona and Sáenz, county staff chastised them for organizing community members via social media.

Because the project was not on the board’s agenda, speakers stood during the public comment period to point to businesses on Florence that had been vacant for years as potential alternative library sites and to again ask why the supervisor was not willing to work more closely with the community to resolve the library issue [p. 29].

In return, Ridley-Thomas continued to speak of the urgency of the housing crisis and frame his decision in terms of “a classic example of competing claims” [p. 37]. He would offer no explanation for why they had not been consulted at any point over the last two years or why, if the library had been pulled from the AMCAL project because of cost-effectiveness (as suggested in the 2017 motion), it would not now be more cost-effective to work the library back into the plans (rather than having to acquire a completely new site).

The hypocrisy was too much for a young woman named Mia who had accompanied Orona and Sáenz to the July board meeting. She gathered up her courage and took to the mic to address the supervisor.

“I don’t want to make this precise to Mark Ridley-Thomas,” she began [see p. 30], “but I have received an award from him before. So for him to kind of not hear our opinion for this library…”

She took a breath and forged ahead: “It would be best if they can just help us find a relocation for [it] – something that would help us instead of taking [it] away. Because at this point it seems that they’re caring more about the money than our education. That’s it.”

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“It means every single thing”

As night falls over the September 5 rallygoers, Juan Carlos Valadez has paused mid-sentence and is flipping through the photos in his phone.

“That was my daughter,” he finally says, showing me a photo of Mia holding her championship belt as she receives an award for exceptional youth from Ridley-Thomas.

She had been Junior National Boxing Champion for four years. But Valadez believed the library had been as important to her growth as the gym. A single dad raising two girls on his own, he had relied heavily on the library to help round out their education and give them a safe place to be. The librarians knew his daughters and welcomed them. And because of the library, he says, he was able to get his girls reading at a university level by the time they were teens.

It had even been vital to his own growth as a gang-banging youth, he says. He had always loved to read, and when he was ready to get his degree and move on to higher education – he just finished a Master’s in English Literature and is considering pursuing a Ph.D – the library had been there for him.

Mia had been the one that had alerted him about the library and gotten him to start attending Juntos Florence-Firestone Together’s meetings. Now, here he was protesting in the street with his own father in tow – a man who had never learned to read because he had had to work as a child, but who also believed it was important for others to have the educational opportunities he didn’t.

“What does [a resource like the library] mean to us?” Valadez asks, shaking his head. “It means everything. It means every single thing.”

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Ten-year-old Brenda Ayala (center) says she grew up visiting the library every day. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

It is now after 8 p.m. and the honking, cheering, and loud vocal support that kept rallygoers’ spirits aloft for the last two hours has dwindled. Parents need to get their kids home. It’s a school night, after all.

Their kids will have quite the story to tell. Outside of the teachers’ strike, this was the first such protest on behalf of the community’s concerns anyone could recall seeing in years – perhaps decades.

For kids like ten-year-old Brenda Ayala (above), it offered hope that they might actually be able to make change.

She had grown up visiting the library almost every day, she says. An avid reader of whatever she could get her hands on (but especially dinosaur books), she says she had also appreciated the library for the activities she had been able to take part in with her family and friends. It was a resource she needed in her life.

When asked if she had a message for the supervisor, her face lights up.

“We are here!” she says loudly. “And we won’t go until they replace the library – we will never leave!”

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Keep up with the work of Juntos Florence-Firestone Together on twitter: @florencefiresto. Find me here: @sahrasulaiman

*Special thanks to Steven Sharp and Shane Phillips for helping me sort through confusing planning documents and TOC-related issues. All errors are mine alone.

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