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After decades of waiting, Chinatown creates its own library

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  August 18, 2011 02:28 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Kye Liang, project coordinator for the Chinatown Gateway Coalition, stands next to boxes of donated books in a space that will soon be a new library for Chinatown.

By the time the leaves begin to turn, Chinatown residents could be turning pages in a new neighborhood library, something the district has lacked for more than half a century.

After years of effort to bring a branch of the Boston Public Library to their neighborhood, the Friends of the Chinatown Library have struck out on their own to create a small library they hope will lead to much bigger things.

“If we wait for the city to do something, I don’t know how many years we’re going to have to wait,” said Kye Liang, project coordinator for the Chinatown Gateway Coalition and a leader of the library project. “The community’s been talking about it for a decade now. So who knows, another decade, another 20 years?”

To create the library, the friends group has secured a large room within the Oak Terrace apartment complex owned by the Asian Community Development Corporation.

With 4,000 books donated by neighborhood residents Sam and Leslie Davol, who operated the temporary Chinatown Storefront Library from late 2009 into early 2010, and another 3,000 donated by Dr. Nelson Y.S. Kiang, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, all the library needs now are shelves, fixtures, and someone to run it.

To prepare for the opening, the group has advertised a position for a startup manager who would help raise money, develop partnerships, and oversee the site, its programs, and volunteers. Startup funds include a $50,000 donation from the Barr Foundation and $100,000 from a private donor.

“It’s not exactly how people envisioned it when they first started — getting a 20,000-square-feet BPL branch library,” Liang said. “This space is like 500 square feet. It is small, but also we don’t have to pay a lot of money for it. Sometimes you have to start small.”

Chinatown had a BPL branch from 1896 to 1938 at 130 Tyler St., the present-day location of the Tai Tung Village housing complex, and then a reading room at that address from 1951 – 1956. The municipal building on Tyler Street was demolished in 1956, apparently to make way for the elevated Central Artery, though the route was later changed to run just east of that site.

After the demolition, Chinatown briefly received visits from a bookmobile, but it has been without a library for more than half a century, except for the three-month period the Chinatown Storefront Library was in operation in the Archstone building on Washington Street.

The BPL completed a 300-page site study for a Chinatown branch library in June 2008, but since then has lacked the funding to go any further. Speculation that one could be built in city-owned China Trade Center on Boylston Street has so far led nowhere.

That’s why the friends group has stepped in, offering a new vision for the community. The group has moved beyond its early efforts to bring a branch library to the neighborhood and into planning a cultural center that would incorporate a library, educational programming, historical exhibits, art galleries, and performing arts spaces.

Liang said the plan had to change after the BPL began proposing to close branches in other neighborhoods last year and it became clear that the money for a Chinatown branch wasn’t there.

The room within Oak Terrace is the beginning of the center the group hopes to build, but for Liang, it also marks the start of implementing the goals listed in the Chinatown Master Plan 2010, a community-led project that envisions the future of the neighborhood based on the concerns and priorities of its residents.

Through a two-year public process with participation from up to 200 residents, the Chinatown Gateway Coalition developed a new vision for the neighborhood that acknowledges its importance as the historical and contemporary gateway for Asian immigrants settling in Boston but also its central nature in the lives of Asian-American residents throughout the region.

“The role of Chinatown is shifting,” Liang said. “It serves as more of a regional center for a larger Asian-American population that’s connected by public transportation.”

Liang pointed out that the fastest-growing Asian-American groups outside Chinatown are in Malden, at the northern end of the Orange Line, and in Quincy, near the southern end of the Red Line. Those rail connections enable the greater community to easily access Chinatown, which serves as a hub for culture, resources, and services for Asian-American communities throughout the region.

An important element of the 2010 plan, Liang said, is that unlike a previous plan developed by the community in 2000, this one included action steps to follow and created an implementation committee with experts who will analyze proposed development in the neighborhood and help inform residents about how it could affect them.

One of the broad goals of the plan is to expand civic spaces, which is where the plan for a cultural center comes in. Liang hopes the small library will be the seed that grows into a much larger multi-use space.

Before that can happen, though, Liang believes the organizers need to demonstrate to potential funders both the need for a such a center and their capacity to manage one.

“Until this long-term center is built, we need to do something interim to demonstrate that we can actually run a program but also to collect data on the users and constituents,” Liang said.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

chinatown library exterior.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

The Oak Terrace apartment complex. Through the gate at right, a door leads to the future Chinatown community library.

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