By Jordan Latimore | OBSERVER Staff Writer
It’s been 30 years too long without a library in the heart of Oak Park.
When the McClatchy Park branch — prominently located on the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue — closed in 1993, it took away the last easily-accessible public library within one of Sacramento’s most historically Black neighborhoods.
Long-time Oak Park residents Dorothy Benjamin and her daughter Michelle Crisp believe the Oak Park they grew up in needs to restore such a vital community institution.
“We want a library in central Oak Park,” Dorothy Benjamin declared, noting that test scores at central Oak Park’s four elementary schools are substandard. A library, she said, could facilitate tutoring, among other educational resources. “We just need that library.”
For nearly a decade, Benjamin and Crisp have been facilitating a community support movement, Friends of Oak Park Library, dedicated to returning a library to Oak Park.
Crisp, principal at Taylor Street Elementary, learned how to read in the McClatchy Park Library basement. The 2019 Robla School District Teacher of the Year is helping her mother deliver an educational vision for the community so that kids have every chance to learn as she did.
“In addition to having the books and the tutoring, it’s a community resource, which is what I grew up with,” Crisp said. “We’re just looking for something that will help with test scores and students; but I think just as an educator, now that I’m an administrator, the accessibility of students being able to touch that print, I think is really key.”
Benjamin, a public affairs manager and community advocate for over 30 years, said she feels an immense sense of purpose to provide her community a library.
“Approximately 30 years ago the city made this decision to go from smaller to smaller libraries and small communities and go countywide,” said Benjamin, who says she has communicated with city officials again and again. After the McClatchy Park branch closure, the Colonial Heights branch on Stockton Boulevard — 1.7 miles and a 34-minute walk from Oak Park — was designated as the region’s community library.
Benjamin in 2015 made a formal proposal to then-Councilperson Jay Schenirer that presented several potential Oak Park library sites, including a proposed reopening of the McClatchy Park site — which is now owned by the University of the Pacific. Benjamin said that Schenirer was “very supportive” of the proposal, and even offered a counter that featured the idea of turning Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary School on Martin Luther King Boulevard into a dual youth institution.
Benjamin said she followed up with Schenirer in 2016 and was told his office had become “too busy” to address the issue.
“We just couldn’t make it happen,” Benjamin said. “But I never gave up on the idea.”
Seven years and nearly 1,000 petition signatures later, Benjamin and the Friends of Oak Park Library have not only refused to give up, but the group is also going all in.
Benjamin said she and Crisp have applied for Friends of Oak Park Library to have nonprofit status as a 501(3)(c). They also have begun organizing a formal committee composed of “members of the community as well as the nonprofit board of directors,” Benjamin said. “We’re bringing the committee, the community, along with us.”
Current Councilmember Caity Maple has echoed Schenirer’s support of the Friends of Oak Park Library.
With a goal of securing 1,500 signatures and Maple’s already among those, Benjamin is confident the numbers reflect strong support for a revived Oak Park public library, which would be imperative toward educating the community’s youth.
“I believe the best way to fight for change is from the ground up, and that’s just what Mrs. Benjamin has been doing for nearly a decade,” Maple said. “I promised her I would do everything in my power to bring a library back to Oak Park if I was elected and I’m glad to be working in partnership with her as we fight to make it happen.”
Maple now serves on the Sacramento library authority board of directors, which manages all branches of libraries in the region. She said it’s unreasonable to expect children to commute to the Colonial Heights Library given its proximity to school locations and environment.
“It is not safe to cross Stockton Boulevard,” Maple said. “We have seen many car-on-pedestrian injuries and fatalities over the years.”
What Benjamin wonders, however, is how other areas have been awarded funds to upgrade their libraries while Oak Park struggles to bring back a library that already had a presence.
“Councilmember [and now Sheriff] Jim Cooper was able to get thousands of dollars to upgrade the library in Elk Grove – to upgrade it, not to build a new one,” Benjamin said. “They’re upgrading [and] we don’t even have one.”