Residents respond to library cuts

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Photo by Alon Harish.

Residents are alleging that the cuts to New Haven’s libraries in Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s budget put New Haven’s children at risk.

That was the charge aldermen heard from several residents and an alderwoman at a public finance hearing in Fair Haven Tuesday night. With gun violence on the rise and jobs scarce in many parts of the city, libraries are not only essential for children’s education, but also for keeping them safe, Ward 19 Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards said.

Since Feb. 28, no libraries in the city have been open on Saturdays except the main branch on the Green. The following morning, DeStefano proposed the libraries’ budget be cut by 11 percent. The city then laid off 12 library workers, forcing all four other libraries to open only three days per week.

Libraries are some of the last safe places for children to go, said Christine Jena, a resident of Newhallville. Jena said her neighborhood has gotten so unsafe that she has had to stop working, but until February, she said she was at least able to tutor children at her local library branch.

“Imagine being trapped inside your house because the gunshots are so bad and there’s nowhere else to go,” Jena said. “We’re blocking generations of people from achieving their potential and setting them up for failure.”

Edwards and 25 other women convened a meeting last week to discuss the impact on their community of cuts to libraries. Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, who attended, said she was convinced the city should try to find a way to preserve the positive role of libraries in the lives of at-risk youth.

Without adequate access to a library, students’ education suffers, said Ruby White, also of Newhallville. Cutting weekend hours from libraries across the city sends the wrong message to the city’s schoolchildren, she told aldermen in the auditorium of Fair Haven Middle School on Grand Avenue on Tuesday.

“Yale just gave our kids a promise,” White said, referring to the partially Yale-funded college scholarship program for the city’s public school students, the New Haven Promise. “And now the city is sabotaging that promise, cutting services on their backs,” White said.

After the hearing, Clark said she was intrigued by a proposal to shift library hours from weekdays to weekends. Ward 25 Alderman and library board member Greg Dildine suggested the shift during the hearing as a way to keep libraries open when they are needed most — without costing the city more money than it has.

A reallocation of hours would have to be approved by the library board of directors, said Ward 29 Alderman and Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield.

There has been an evolution in the role of the city’s libraries, Clark said. No longer simply places with stacks of books, she said, libraries are now social spaces that provide safe environments for teenagers who desperately need them.

“Nobody’s really thought of it this way, but libraries are the new community centers,” Clark said.

Libraries are as much a pillar of the community as its churches, schools and hospitals, said Lynn Smith, a Fair Haven resident who also attended last week’s meeting with Edwards. By giving young people shelter from negative influences, Smith said, libraries lighten the load of the city’s police department, which lost 16 officers in February.

“It’s easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble,” Smith said.

In a statement released Feb. 28 with the announcement of the reduced library hours, City Librarian and Executive Director Christopher Korenowsky said he is “disheartened beyond belief that the state of the city budget can no longer sustain the current structure of public library services.”

In addition to the cuts in library services, DeStefano’s budget calls for cuts to nearly every other department but the Board of Education. A total of 82 city employees lost their jobs in February, with many layoffs expected to come this summer.

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