Long Beach community rallies to save West End library closed since Sandy

(L-R) Chamber of Commerce member James Lynch, library (L-R) Chamber of Commerce member James Lynch, library board candidate Diane Parr, West End resident Leslie Madden, West End Neighbors Association President John Bendo, library building landlord Theresa Palmieri, West End resident Eileen Avagliano, and West End resident Thomas Hickey stand outside Long Beach's still shuttered West End Library. (April 12, 2013). Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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The West End branch of the Long Beach Public Library is a humble structure -- a 1,000-square-foot building that resembles an outsized Fotomat.

What's important about the tiny branch, which superstorm Sandy wiped out, is what it represents to the hard-hit West End community, say the residents who are rallying to save it.

Long Beach library trustees have proposed a 2013-14 budget that likely would result in the closure of the West Beech Street branch, which has served the community for decades.

But many residents of the West End -- where only about half of the homeowners have returned since Sandy -- oppose the closure, said West Ender Maria Fitzgerald.

"Just to have something open and running makes it look like this part of the community is back up," said Fitzgerald, secretary of the West End Neighbors Civic Association. "To see something open again is very important down here."

The West End branch has been closed since Sandy, though the family that owns the building and leases it to the city has repaired the facility. Sandy destroyed all of the materials in the one-floor branch.

Library system trustees last month adopted a nearly $3.4-million budget that does not include money to restock the West End branch. Residents will vote on the proposal as part of the May 21 school budget.

The system would continue to lease the library through the contract's end in February and possibly reopen it for use by community groups, trustees have said. The trustees would have to decide in February whether to fully shutter the branch.

The decision to not reopen the West End branch was difficult, said trustee Alan Greenberg. Contributing factors, officials said, were a decline in borrowing from 2009 to 2012, inconsistent attendance at children's programs and the displacement of some residents.

A library branch -- its physical location has moved at least once -- has served the West End for more than 60 years, said city historian Roberta Fiore.

Some West End residents are more adamant than others that the branch should remain, said John Bendo, president of the civic association, who said declining usage makes it difficult to lobby for its reopening.

The effort to save the West End library has spurred at least one resident, Diane Parr, to run against Greenberg for trustee. The election for the five-year seat is the same day as the budget vote -- May 21.

"There's a lot of elderly people here and they could make use of it," Parr said, adding that the main library is more than a 20-minute walk from the branch. The system's other branch is in Point Lookout.

Some West End residents, including Nassau Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach), said they might vote against the budget plan to show support for the branch. Defeating the budget would not require the trustees to craft a new plan with money for the West End branch.

But it would show solidarity in the community, Ford said.

"It would be nice not to have another dark storefront, and have something people have always had in the West End waiting for people when they come back," Ford said.

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