The Missing Library

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.

Tyler Street Branch Library, former Chinatown Branch Library located at 118 Tyler Street. (Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.)

On Tyler Street

Tyler Street branch library, former Chinatown branch library, was initially built at 130 Tyler Street as a “Delivery Station” in 1896. The branch library was moved to 118 Tyler Street and later on closed down because of the lack of funding to provide services and usage of patrons. Even though there were several protests against the closure led by city councilor John Fitzgerald and other community groups, the library stayed closed.

Children's story time at Tyler Street branch library during 1920s. (Image Courtsey of Boston Public Library.)

Chinatown and the South End was then home for Syrian, Greek and Italian families - unlike other neighborhoods, Chinatown is a neighborhood with continued immigration and a place for newcomers to learn and adjust to American culture. Citizens of Boston’s Chinatown and bordering areas petitioned the mayor to bring the Tyler Street branch library back, which finally brought back the branch library in 1951.

“My mom is a very avid reader – she always has a book in her hand,” said Fan, now 72 years old. “She wanted us to be readers, so she would take us to the library on a regular basis.” Deeply impacted by her mother’s love of books, Fan ends up working in the library in high school and made her own children to work at the library as their first jobs too.

However, the good time did not last long. Only five years after the reopening, the library was torn down and closed permanently in order to make the room for the Central Artery and the extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The place that used to be a paradise for children like Fan at the time, was completely gone.

Being forgotten

Boston Public Library, one of the largest public libraries in the U.S., is a pioneer in terms of programs and services. Though it has 24 branches citywide, Boston’sdenselypopulated and vibrant Chinatown would not have a branch for decades.

“When I heard about how Chinatown didn’t have a permanent branch, I thought it was kind of crazy. Where could the kids read books?” said Vivian Wu-Wong, a history teacher at Milton Academy. Growing up in a Taiwanese family as a first generation Chinese-American in Cherry Hill, NJ., Wu Wong was shocked when she moved to Boston and found there was no library.

The construction of the Central Artery not only took away the library from Chinatown residents, but displaced hundreds of Chinese-American and immigrants families who used to live on Hudson and Albany Street. Aditi Mehta, now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who researched a study on the Chinatown library in 2010 for her doctoral degree at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, believed that the decision of whether to have or not have a library largely depended on the values of urban planning at the time.

The City demolished Hudson Street to make room for Turnpike Extension. (Image Courtsey of Wing Kai To and Chinese Historical Society of New England.)

Chinatown Central Artery construction near Albany Street. (Image Courtsey of Leslie Jones.)

“A library was not in the position of modernization at that time. For them [the city and policy makers], community development in Chinatown was more about physical rebuilding and expansion - that was modernization,” said Mehta.

The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, bringing many Chinese immigrants into Chinatown. At the same time, with a sizable portion of Chinatown residents forced to move out because of urban renewal, the library movement lost its momentum.

“The library wasn’t a priority [in Chinatown] because the community was undergoing so many issues and trauma at that time,” explains Mehta referring to the displacement due to the construction of Central Artery, as well as language barriers, high unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, and anti-Asian violence. “When a community has those kind of urgent issues, a library can get left behind.”

There was no way for the city to see or understand the dynamic and needs of Chinatown while it was overlooked because of its poverty and disorganization. “In the beginning when the library was established, it has a very clear role which I called as ‘assimilation processing center’ - it was made to teach how to make immigrants Americans and control them,” said Mehta. “Once that [perception] got left behind, and there was a sort of fear in the same way as xenophobia, the neighborhood [Chinatown] became invisible and unimportant. All the decisions were made based on measurements and quantitative data rather than the real need of the community.”

Mass Turnpike Extension was built by Chinatown.(Image courtsey of Phil Preston.)

David Moy, the former director of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, told Mehta in 2010, “There was never any talk of getting our own library. You don’t miss what you don’t know about - I never thought that we should have our own branch library.”

The fact that Chinatown was powerless and voiceless for the needs of a library service, erased it from the city’s blueprint - during the year Chinatown has no persistent library service, almost every other branches have had renovation projects, big or small.

Mehta said, “I think there were discrimination against the immigrant community. When the budgets were cut, it was always the priority to serve the educated population rather than immigrants neighborhoods at the time.”

Second graders from Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School in Mattapan rallied for a library in Chinatown on Jan. 17 at City Hall. (Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.)

The struggles and advocacy

In the years that followed, fighting for library service was not a priority. That changed in early 2000, when a group of youth from the Chinese Progressive Association’s Chinese Youth Initiative heard about the library that most never knew had existed. They began asking questions that restarted the debate.

“It was the youth that brought energy to the whole campaign and got people excited about the library,” explains Wu Wong. “It was the kids standing up and getting a petition for the library, letters in the newspaper that got people to pay attention.”

The youth got the campaign jumpstarted by conducting a large-scale survey about the absence of a library in Chinatown to Chinatown residents and stakeholders in 2001. The results showed that everyone was excited about the library. According to a hearing at the City Council on June 13, 2006, of the 349 participants, 100 percent want a library.

When the people of Chinatown stopped staying silent for the library that was owed for decades, the city began to pay attention to the real needs of the community. “It is not that people don’t want a library, but the kids got people in the community to see that, [the library] is worth asking for, and organizing for,” said Wu Wong.

A book stand by Chinatown Gate near Beach Street. (Image courtsey of Ruobing Su.)

The youth initiative committee partnered with Friends of Chinatown Library, a non-profit organization devoted on Chinatown branch library since 2000, to work together with city councilors and the Boston Public Library to get the funding for feasibility studies. During the 2013 Boston mayoral election, the Youth Initiative Committee was able to convince Mayor Marty J. Walsh, then a candidate, to sign a pledge committing to building a library for Chinatown.

After Walsh was elected, the youth came back to him with over 600 petition signatures in support of community benefits funding for the library services in Chinatown to get going with the mayor of what he has promised to Chinatown.

“We were keeping getting responses from [Walsh’s predecessor, Mayor Thomas] Menino’s administration that it was not possible because of the Great Recession after the first feasibility study was done in 2006. So we were trying to adopt a community center with library service supported by Boston Public Library, ” recalled Lydia Lowe, former Executive Director of Chinese Progressive Association and a member of the Friends group. “When we talked to Walsh, he said ‘No, I am going to bring a real library to Chinatown.’”

A ribbon-cutting for the Chinatown library temporary branch was held on Feb. 3 at the China Trade Center, joined by hundreds of people from different communities. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)


“I don’t think we would even have this temporary library without Mayor Walsh’s commitment and support. The city councilors, [Michelle] Wu, [Bill] Linehan (former District 2 City Councilor) and many other people, they were helping a lot towards what we’ve gotten today,” said Wu Wong.

February 3, 2018, was a typical winter day in Boston. Hundreds of local residents, elected officials and community organizers gathered in the basement of China Trade Center, where the temporary Chinatown branch library reopened -- a moment they have been waiting for 62 years.

“This is a long time coming, a lot of advocacy and work, for this library,” said Walsh at the Ribbon-cutting event. “Today is about adding service to the community, and bringing services back to the community that has been needed to make sure we haven’t forgotten where we started.”

The temporary space is at the basement of China Trade Center, a building owned by Boston Planning and Development Agency, which is 1,500 square feet with a capacity for about 150 people.

Walking into the branch library, the block bold text that on the wall reads “Chinatown Branch Library” in English and Mandarin. There were bilingual brochures and rack cards of the programs the branch library is offering on and behind the front desk. A soft green sofa at the small reading corner to the side the library for children and parents makes the library cozy and warm.

The atrium is equipped with several movable sofas, where the readers and the visitors can read outside or simply take a rest. At noon on weekdays, teachers from nearby daycare centers bring children here for story time. This branch space is expected to open for three to five years, until a permanent site is established.

“We are a small but full service library, ” said Ammie Long, the new librarian of the Chinatown Branch Library. “We need to make this a community library, not just another branch, we need to prove we are here for the community.”

Long has been working tirelessly to reconnect the community with the library service by developing programs other than her daily managerial work, getting ready for the installation of the permanent branch. “The successful libraries have an abundance of programs and services. That makes the library a community hub and resource center,” said Long.

Since Long started working at the Chinatown Branch Library in June, she has been working tirelessly to reconnect the community with library. Program outside of her daily managerial work helps make the library essential, strengthening the case for the permanent branch. “The successful libraries have an abundance of programs and services. That makes the library a community hub and resource center,” said Long.

Boston Lyric Opera performed excerpts from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” on Feb. 20 at the Chinatown library for children, students and caregivers during school vacation week. (Image Courtsey of Ruobing Su.)

Of all the programs she manages, Tech Goes Home is one she sees as the most important connection to the community. It is a City of Boston digital literacy program that teaches computer skills and offers patrons a free laptop if they complete coursework. Long said people told her they never responded to Tech Goes Home elsewhere because of language barriers. Many responded this time because the course was in Chinatown – they expected the workshop to be conducted in Chinese. “We didn’t plan that [in Chinese] at the beginning, while after we heard from them, we adjust the instructions and finally we would like to instruct primarily in Chinese,” she said.

Although the primary audience Chinatown residents, the Chinatown Branch Library has also become a popular drop-off location for patrons citywide and visitors from all over the world due to the uniqueness of its location. Long introduced “Express Computer” service for non-Massachusetts residents to get quick computer access rather than applying for a BPL membership card.

The homeless population is represented among library patrons, as St. Francis House is across the street. The library is a safe and inclusive place for them to stay and use resources for free. “We welcome everyone to the library,” said Long. “We want to be helpful and make all the visitors feel welcomed, and also provide the best customer service to them.”

Chinatown Branch Library temporary service is located at the basement of China Trade Center on Boylston Street. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Not yet victory

“I don’t think we would even have this temporary library without Walsh’s commitment and support. The city councilors, [Michelle] Wu, [Bill] Linehan (former District 2 City Councilor) and many other people, they were helping a lot towards what we’ve gotten today,” said Wu Wong.

After moving to Boston after finishing college in California, Wu Wong learned a lot about the history of the branch library. For years, her and her husband, who grew up in Boston’s Chinatown, has been paying attention to the library movement. Three years ago, when Lowe approached Wu Wong for a treasurer position at the Friends group, she said yes without thinking too much.

The temporary service is a major breakthrough for many years of advocacy yet not victory. Finding a place for the Chinatown Branch Library in such high density neighborhood is incredibly challenging.

Currently, the library is located in the basement of China Trade Center, owned by BPDA, which is a 1,500 square feet single-room space. The atrium is where almost every single program at library is held ironically, it is not even a part of the rent. The poor lighting and hollow design of the building makes it difficult to host programs on gloomy days or at dusk, especially during daylight saving time. The host building is generous enough to let the library to use the atrium during work hours. However, it is still not an ideal place for community gatherings and programming. The needs of a permanent site with an open entrance and big community space are urgent.

As a neighborhood located in the heart of the city, Chinatown has faced land issues for years. Not only are prices high, but the actual land available for community use is extremely limited. Located on Tremont Street in the Mid-Town Cultural Zoning District and South Cove Urban Renewal Area, Parcel 12 offers the potential for a mixed-use development that can benefit the surrounding neighborhoods, including Chinatown and Bay Village.

Earlier this year, Asian Community Development Corporation submitted a proposal for developing Parcel 12, which is currently used as a surface parking lot on Tremont Street. The lot would be replaced with a permanent site for Chinatown Branch Library on the first floor, and 138 units of affordable housing above it. Parcel 12 measures about 30,000 square feet, and the proposed area for the library is 8,000 square feet.

Parcel 12, a lot owned by City of Boston, is currently used as a surface parking lot on Tremont Street. (Image Courtsey of Ruobing Su.)

The blueprint for permanent Chinatown Branch library on Parcel 12 proposed by Asian Community Development Coporation and Friends of Chinatown Branch Library. (Image Courtsey of Ruobing Su.)

Even though the proposed area is much bigger than the temporary site that falls into category as a small branch library, it is still too small for serving so many people who live in Chinatown, the Leather District, Downtown Crossing, the Bay Village area and the north portion of the South End, where a majority of Asians in Boston live.

Community support and voice in letting the city know that Chinatown needs a bigger library is critical. Right now, the community organizations were working together with BPL and the city for the permanent branch, which ideally will be open to the public in three to five years from now.

“We would like to ask you talk with your friends, and other residents to communicate to the city that can really meet what we need,” said Carolyn Rubin, the chair of the Friends group at a book sale and reception event held at Chinatown Branch Library atrium.

Fan speaking at the Ribbon-cutting event for the temporary service on February 3, 2018. (Image Courtsey of Ruobing Su.)

The Fairy Tale

As a book-lover who always yearn for happy endings, Fan witnessed the close-down of the library when she was little; for the years that she worked for the library campaign, she never gave up on working on bringing the library service back to the community.

Her dream finally came true, even though there is another few years to go until the permanent branch to be built. Looking into the future, she is optimistic and excited.

Every time when Fan talks about everything she has witnessed since the library went down, she likes to refer the whole movement as a fairy tale.

“At the start of the fairy tales, you always have some sort of dilemma: there are always some problems, or monsters, or witches who are making life difficult for your and your family,” said Fan. “I hope it is also going to be the case for the branch library that we have a happy ending like the fairy tales. We have this problem, and we have the branch library taken away from us, but we will have a happy ending.”

The journey continues, and Chinatown residents keep fighting for the library.

“We as a community are 100 percent confident that our demand for a library will persist and persistent for 17 years [since the library campaign started in 2001]- yes, we want a library, and we will advocate for it until we have a permanent branch,” said Fan.

INNOVAT19N showcases the master's projects of the 2019 Media Innovation program at the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2018