Metro, Boston

After 62 Years, Public Library Branch Returns to Chinatown

Natural light poured into the first floor of the China Trade Center, illuminating the bold block text that climbed up the side of the stairs, reading “Boston Public Library Chinatown” in English and Mandarin.

There was already that quiet library hum, fueled by the occasional whisper and the crackle of turning pages. Kids sat sprawled out on the bright green benches lining the walls, adults typed away at computers, and students studied for their first exams at the tables scattered throughout the room.

A little boy traced his fingers across the colorful spines in the children’s section with his eyebrows furrowed, focused on the task at hand. He paused first over Captain Underpants, but ended up with a classic, Curious George.

“Good choice,” said his mom. “This is one of my favorites.”

Last Monday, Boston Public Library opened the doors to its first physical branch in Chinatown since 1956, following a $1 million investment in library services. After decades of campaigning, Chinatown’s residents finally have a location, although this one’s only temporary. Plans for long-term library services are still in development, and a permanent location is expected in three to five years.

Until then, the China Trade Center, a city-owned building, will serve as the branch’s headquarters. The center is home to several non-profits that will work in partnership with Boston Public Library, including the International Institute of New England and Urban College of Boston.

“It’s really important to work in collaboration with the community organizations we are so close to,” said Priscilla Foley, director of neighborhood services for the Boston Public Library.

“We have already had classes come in from Urban College and are planning events for the end of the month with Chinatown Mainstreet and the Chinese Historical Society of New England,” she added.

The opening of the branch fulfilled a promise made by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, BC ’09, to the residents of Chinatown, first in his 2013 campaign and again last year in his State of the City Address.

“The opening of this space marks our commitment to ensuring all neighborhoods have the resources and support they need. I look forward to residents benefitting from this space and services,” Walsh said at the official ribbon cutting ceremony.

Chinatown residents played an active role in the planning and preparation of the branch.

“We worked with them every step of the way from public meetings, focus groups, individual discussions, area tours, survey questionnaires,” Foley said. “Their input was vital and will continue to be even after a permanent location is opened.”

The benefit of more localized services to Chinatown is undeniable. Chinatown is one of Boston’s most densely populated districts, and it lacks a communal meeting space for residents to gather and hold events.

Over the years the neighborhood has been under pressure due to the development of high-rise buildings and gentrification. This has caused an influx of new non-Asian and short-term residents, along with a reduction in affordable housing.

Asian residents no longer comprise the majority within Chinatown, and a feasibility study conducted by Boston Public Library and the City of Boston found that many residents feel as if they have little or no connection to the existing community.

The creation of a public space will reinforce ties within the community and help preserve the cultural identity and history of Chinatown. The branch will also provide services uniquely directed to needs of the community, including a bilingual staff, books in English and Mandarin, information on immigration and citizenship, and ESL classes, among others.

“Community response has been really positive so far,” Foley said. “We have had people that live nearby coming in, lots of kids, along with members of the greater Chinese American community here in Boston.”

In addition to residents of Chinatown, the branch is projected to attract visitors from Bay Village, the Leather District, Downtown Crossing, and the north portion of the South End, which is made up of a significant Asian population.

“We have seen some great impact so far. Every neighborhood should have access to library services— it is vital for the maintenance of the community,” she said.

Featured Image Courtesy of  Nicolaus Czarnecki

February 11, 2018