Kensington library patrons and workers are pushing the City for critical repairs and renovations at McPherson Square Library, a historical building and one of the City’s Rebuild project sites.
The group is asking for emergency building repairs to address the building’s lack of ADA accessibility, the deteriorating foundation, the leaky roof, and the outdated plumbing and electrical systems. According to their petition, mushrooms are growing out of the meeting room’s walls due to water damage.
“People in our community are struggling on a daily basis,” the petition says. “The library is no exception, even though the City has the power and the choice to allocate funds to repair and renovate the building.”
Rebuild is Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature program to improve community spaces, funded by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. According to the program website, the program goals include making physical improvements and engaging with community members.
In Kensington, McPherson Square Library is located at the center of McPherson Square Park, which in addition to the library, is another Rebuild project site. Each project site has a web page with information on the project timeline.
Both project timelines state the following: “Outreach and community engagement will start once a nonprofit partner has been identified to lead the project.”
Library worker: ‘We need the building repaired and improved immediately’
On Nov. 14, residents and library workers gathered at the library to discuss the library and park problems, the community spaces they want, and a plan to set things in motion.
Kate Goodman, a library worker and member of AFSCME DC Local 2187, facilitated the meeting.
“McPherson Square is a Rebuild site, and the library needs attention from City Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, Mayor Kenney, the [Free] Library administration, and Rebuild in order to release funding that’s already allocated to repair the building,” Goodman wrote in an email to Kensington Voice on Nov. 30. “We need the building repaired and improved immediately.”
Goodman added that the library is in severe disrepair because of the City’s neglect over the last decades. Generally, in addition to the major requested repairs, the building needs new paint, lights, carpet, flooring, and ceiling tiles, she said.
Read more: Philly library funding increase is a step in the right direction but falls short of what’s needed.
During the meeting, the group talked in detail about the problems, such as a lack of ADA accessibility, maintenance, and safety concerns.
For example, Judith Moore, a library worker, said she was working at the library when the roof was replaced in 1997. Now, the roof has visible leaks and needs to be replaced again.
“I just know from being here back then that it was a 20-year roof and that was ‘97,” Moore said. “So we’re five years overdue for a new roof.”
She added that the lack of a wheelchair ramp also affects families with strollers.
“If you look around the neighborhood, you see people in wheelchairs,” Moore said. “And you saw even tonight, there are two or three people with strollers who had to drag the strollers up the steps.”
However, the problem many meeting attendees emphasized as most urgent is that the basement is closed and the children and teens from the after school program have been moved to the main floor.
“The basement has a compromised foundation, which lets moisture from rain and contaminated park runoff into the walls,” Goodman wrote in an email on Nov. 30. “The basement smells awful. Walls are peeling and crumbling and water pours into utility rooms when it rains.”
During the meeting, another problem discussed was the lack of restrooms for the park’s unhoused population. According to library workers, the lack of a public restroom has resulted in human waste mixing into the park runoff and coming into the building.
In the past, the library bathroom was open to the public without supervision. However, due to repeated overdoses, the library now has a bathroom monitor that requires identification or a name to enter the bathroom. Moore wrote in an email to Kensington Voice on Dec. 12 that the library put this system in place to identify people who use drugs in the bathroom and need to be banned. Moore wrote that it’s been about two years since the library has had to call 911 for a bathroom overdose.
“The library buildings department is taking steps to repair the basement walls and foundation to make it safe for use after school, but there are much deeper structural repairs that need to be taken to stabilize the building and make it safe for staff and community,” Goodman wrote.
The history of Rebuild in Kensington and throughout Philly
Initially, in 2016, the Rebuild project faced some delays due to legal challenges after the beverage industry sued the City. In November 2017, the City selected 61 Rebuild sites, including McPherson Square, and presented them to City Council for approval. Finally, in June and July of 2018, respectively, City Council approved 64 Rebuild sites and then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tax.
By 2020, the Rebuild program was gaining momentum as projects were completed and others were set to begin — and then the pandemic hit.
In the past few years, the Rebuild program has experienced significant delays due to the pandemic, leaving residents in high-risk areas waiting. Currently, there are 72 Rebuild sites. Earlier this fall, some library patrons grew concerned about the City canceling the projects at McPherson, and some of these concerns continue. However, the City denied any cancellations.
“As it relates to community concerns that the project is not moving forward or canceled altogether, that is absolutely not true,” said Raymond Smeriglio, Rebuild’s chief of staff, on Nov. 3. “It is still our intention to make critical investments into McPherson Square Park and Library.”
In an email to Kensington Voice, Smeriglio added that Impact Services will be managing both projects as the nonprofit partner. Smeriglio also highlighted the recent activation of the park for Parks & Rec’s Playstreets program. The summer program usually takes place on designated blocks for kids to have safe places to play. However, due to safety concerns, several blocks in the Kensington area weren’t approved for the program this year.
“Given the success over the summer, we have started internal conversations to ramp up the Rebuild process at McPherson,” Smeriglio wrote in an email on Nov. 4.
Read more: Kensington kids are loving the new summer programming in McPherson Square￼
Community visions for McPherson’s future
Looking forward, the library workers and patrons gathered at McPherson Square Library in November shared their ideas for the library and park.
Community members suggested an improved basement and kid’s area, a designated dog park, and even a new library name that reflects the community’s *Latine/Hispanic heritage. The group also wanted to see the recent park activation and programming continue.
*Editor’s Note: As languages evolve, we may change our style preferences. Previously, we used “Latinx” instead of “Latino/a” to support gender neutrality. Now, we will be using “Latine” to better accomodate Spanish pronounciation. To learn more, click here.
Many of the community members who were present at the meeting expressed how much they rely on the library for services.
Theresa Grone, a 38-year Kensington resident and community leader, said she was “adopted” by McPherson Square Library when her oldest daughter was born 16 years ago.
“This is our go-to,” Grone said. “This is my children’s go-to. I know many children in the neighborhood who look up to this library, who come daily, who have nowhere else to go to stay warm or to eat.”
As a critical resource, Grone added that the library needs enough funding to install a ramp and improve the indoor and outdoor lighting, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing.
“[The library’s] more like a rec center,” Grone said. “There’s so much more than just the library here. It’s a home to some of these children. It’s a home to me.”
The last part of the November meeting focused on next steps, specifically community organizing. Everyone agreed on writing letters to local and state officials serving the area and the importance and urgency of meeting with Kensington’s new 7th District Councilmember Quetcy Lozada for political support.
In terms of urgency, Grone also views the library as a place for youth who are at-risk of getting involved with the drugs and gun violence in the neighbohood.
Recently, community members and other stakeholders created a petition to repair the library addressed to Councilmember Lozada, Philadelphia Free Library President and Director Kelly Richards, and Rebuild Executive Director Kira Strong. You can view the petition, which lists all the emergency issues, here.
“We need to get this stuff lined up and in order, so we can have those things done and hold the right person accountable for all of this,” Grone said.
Editors: Siani Colón, Jillian Bauer-Reese Designer: Zari Tarazona
Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.