As Philly grapples with gun violence, libraries look to become a safe space for city youth

The city’s Rebuild program is working to improve and renovate libraries across Philadelphia

By: - September 19, 2022 10:22 am

Rebuild PHL representatives distribute information to residents at the Kingsessing Library & Recreation Center open house (Rebuild PHL/Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Alec Larson

PHILADELPHIA — As the city of Philadelphia continues to grapple with widespread gun violence, the city’s Rebuild program has announced that work is set to begin on some of their 12 Rebuild library sites.

Kingsessing Library and Paschalville Library are set to become the first two Free Library branches to receive improvements as part of the Rebuild program. Kingsessing Library will be first to break ground, with the branch set to close in October for a period of one-two months before construction will likely start in earnest in December or January.

Some of the improvements currently planned for the Kingsessing Library site, which has a $7 million budget, include a new reading and hangout area for teens and children, an upgrade in ADA accessibility, new furniture, a new roof, as well as new HVAC systems.

“They’ve been in planning for a long time. So traditionally between community engagement and then all the architectural design and landscape architectural design that needs to happen, that’s anywhere from 12 to 18 months. So we’re at the culminating point for both of those. … So we’ve been at work, it’s a long time, but I think now is when people are just going to be able to actually see the evidence of that planning and design work and community conversations actually come into the site,” said Rebuild’s executive director Kira Strong in regards to Rebuild’s recent announcement that work is commencing at the library sites.

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s President and Director Kelly Richards, with whom Strong said there has been “a really great partnership,” also said he believes that the libraries of the city can make a difference in protecting Philadelphia’s children from gun violence.

“We are a safe place. Something can happen anywhere. I’ve been around in the library field long enough to know that things do happen. But if we can work with youth in our libraries and have a place for them to go, to learn, to study. I think that will help reduce some of that. Because there will be more people in the library than in those situations that take place where this kind of thing in society happens,” Richards said. “And the people and the youth will be in the library working with us … doing programs and events and fun educational opportunities.”

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Overall, Richards said he feels great about the work the Rebuild program is doing to improve and renovate libraries across Philadelphia.

“I’m happy the mayor is doing this for the library. It’s something that’s needed. The libraries need to be remodeled and some tender loving care paid to them in regards to their structure and sort of brought into the 21st century. … I think it’s a good thing for the community. … We’re happy about it and we’re looking forward to it (taking) place.”

The Rebuild program was established in 2017 with the goal of refurbishing 72 of Philadelphia’s more than 400 parks, libraries and recreation centers. The program is funded in large part by hundreds of millions in dollars in projected revenue from Mayor Jim Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax.

“(The Rebuild program is) really geared towards reinvesting in our public spaces, so parks, rec centers, playgrounds, and libraries, and really focusing on a deep dive on community engagement involving residents and families and children and stakeholders into the design of these facilities. And also in ensuring with this great capital program opportunity that we maximize the ability to engage women and minorities in the construction, the design and the construction of these facilities,” Strong said. “We have 72 different sites across the city that we’re focused on, with a focus, I’d say predominantly on high need neighborhoods. We’re really trying to make sure that we’re tackling centers, representatives, libraries, playgrounds that have not seen investment for decades.”

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According to Strong, one of Rebuild’s main priorities has been making sure that the diversity that can be seen across the city of Philadelphia is reflected in the priorities and makeup of the program.

“To that end, we have two programs, a business supports program and a workforce development program that are geared towards getting minority businesses and women owned businesses jobs on Rebuild sites and also working with the building trades on ensuring that minorities and women have access to apprenticeship opportunities in the building, skilled trade unions,” she said.

“So (these are) two programs that we run to increase the pipeline of people of color and women in both the business side and in the actual union as well. And we right now, we’re really thrilled,” Strong continued. “We’ve been hard at work. And we have about a 62% minority and women participation rate in all of the contracts that we have. So anything from engineers, landscape architects, architects, to the actual construction.

“I think we’re really looking to try and move the needle on the dial in the conversation around diverse participation in not only city projects, but projects across the city. That it is possible and that we do need to collectively work to build that pipeline of a diverse workforce so that they are primed and ready as the real estate boom continues and we hope continues in this city. So I think that is certainly a goal, and I think we’ve been able to demonstrate success there with the level of diverse participation we have in just rebuild contracts alone,” Strong added.

Strong also emphasized the importance that the work that Rebuild is doing on safe spaces, such as libraries and recreation centers, can have on protecting the children of Philadelphia from the wave of gun violence that has been plaguing the city’s streets.

“I mean, we’re at such a place right now in the city. I think we’re fortunate to be part of that solution. … To a healthy city and a city that provides the resources and amenities and safe spaces that residents need,” she said. “I think Rebuild is one piece of that puzzle because it’s literally providing that safe space. … That rec center that a kid wants to be at because there’s dynamic, interesting programming happening, or a sports league that’s happening there. Same with the library. There’s resources, there’s a reason to want to be there and that the facility itself is not crumbling, the roof isn’t leaking, the heater actually works, actually has air conditioning. Let’s start even with that, much less that it also works. So I think we are a piece of that puzzle. I don’t think we’re the only answer, but we’re a really important piece. Just like our schools and our other public assets are as well.”

Alec Larson is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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