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The Missing Library

MI Studio 2
For decades, Chinatown residents have organized and agitated to get it restored. They’re still fighting.

Stephanie Fan still remembers the corner of Tyler Street and Oak Street from when she was little – it was the place she could read her favorite Andrew Lang’s fairy tales over and over again.

“I remember that you have to go up a long flight of stairs to get up there, and it was a big space. The children’s space was on one side,” said Fan.

The Chinatown Branch Library, a two-floor brick building was once the most important place in the neighborhood for both recent immigrants and long-time residents. It was a place to learn English, to apply for social services, and for children like Fan to escape into books. The library had experienced several closures and relocations since opening in 1896, but it was still a shock when it was closed and demolished completely in 1956 to make space for the construction of the Central Artery.

Chinatown would be without a library for more than 60 years, so thoroughly forgotten that many residents didn’t know it had ever existed until a group of youth activists started to bring it back to conversation in 2001. For a community that still needs social services, getting a new branch library has been about much more than nostalgia. The 17-year-long movement to restore the library has shown the vitality of Chinatown and the power of immigrants standing up to fight for what they deserve.

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Ruobing Su