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Civics & Democracy

After Years Of Waiting, A South LA Neighborhood Has A New Library

A smiling woman holds up giant scissors following a ribbon cutting ceremony in front of a brick building. Around her, children and adults cheer.
Local elementary students joined Supervisor Holly Mitchell at the new library's opening ceremony.
(Julia Barajas
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In South L.A. this week, residents of Florence-Firestone celebrated the opening of a new library on Compton Avenue. Students from neighborhood schools poured into the building following a ribbon-cutting ceremony — this after years of waiting for a permanent location.

The new site is the long-awaited replacement of Florence Library, which was demolished in 2019 to build affordable housing.

Florence-Firestone is an unincorporated community next to Huntington Park and South Gate. The neighborhood falls under the oversight of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Residents were initially told that the new housing complex would include a 10,000 square foot library. Now-former board supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represented the neighborhood, then authored a motion to revise those plans, saying the library would be better housed elsewhere.

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Library patrons browse through books on a shelf.
The new Florence library is now located on the second floor of a building where the county issues marriage licenses and other documents.
(Julia Barajas

Local residents rose up in protest against the move. More than 7,000 of them signed a petition to save Florence Library. In a section titled “Reasons for signing,” Cecilia Sandoval wrote:

“As a child, my mom would bring my siblings and I to the Florence Library in the 90’s. I also had the privilege of bringing my six year old [to] this very location. What a beautiful thing to bring your own child to the places that you have visited as a child.”

Ashley Orona and Yanel Sáenz are UC Berkeley graduates who were raised in the area and returned home after graduation. They co-founded a grassroots community group called Juntos Florence-Firestone Together to fight for the library.

The group organized at a local church, where they held workshops for the community. They also led protests and provided public comment at L.A. County Board of Supervisors meetings.

Orona went to Parmelee Avenue Elementary School and got her first library card at Florence Library. In college, she found the language to describe the experience of growing up in the neighborhood.

“I learned that the social, economic, and political issues that we have in South Central are not by coincidence,” she said. “We have a history of redlining, of politicians being indifferent and not really investing in our community. I came back to L.A. wanting to be more involved.”

Even though the group wasn’t able to keep the old library from being demolished, Sáenz looks back on its activism with pride. In September 2019, she added, “about 200 teachers, students, and parents all came together” for a protest.

“That was the first time I'd seen something like that locally,” she added. “I was really inspired by how we were all able to mobilize.”

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Orona and Sáenz said they’re glad the library now has a permanent location, but they would have preferred to keep it on Florence Avenue, where there’s more foot traffic. The new library is also on the second floor of a government building, and they would have preferred a stand-alone space.

Portal to another world

Joan Zamora spent a good chunk of her teenage years at the old Florence library.

“I was, like, a goth teen,” she said, laughing. For her, the library was a portal to another world, the place she turned to to learn about the music scene in L.A. and beyond. There, she devoured magazines like Hit Parader and Rolling Stone, along with local publications like L.A. Weekly.

About a dozen students perform a song on a parking lot in front of a brick building. Some are singing, others have musical instruments.
Members of Miramonte Elementary's modern band performed several songs at the opening ceremony.
(Julia Barajas

“Me and my sister literally grew up there,” said Zamora. “We would go whenever we could. The staff even knew us.”

Zamora, who is now an educator and an artist, was really upset when she heard that Florence Library was being torn down. She participated in protests against the demolition and created an altar in honor of the library for a Day of the Dead celebration in Grand Park. (In it, she depicted Ridley-Thomas as Ernesto De La Cruz, the treacherous villain in Disney’s Coco.)

The new library is only two-thirds the size of what was promised, and it’s almost a mile away from where the old one was. Even though she wishes it was better, Zamora still teared up at the opening ceremony. Under a bright blue sky, members of the Miramonte Elementary School’s modern band gave it their all while playing hits like The Beatles’ “Get Back.”

“I’m happy for them,” Zamora said. “But it’s bittersweet.”

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