Historic Washington Heights library reopens after $9 million renovation

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CHICAGO — A beloved library that was once falling apart on the South Side reopened Thursday morning, as the Carter G. Woodson Library begins a whole new chapter.

While the library served 25,000 residents a month, people in the Washington Heights neighborhood still remember the awful condition it was in before the renovations. The roof was leaky, and mesh was literally used to hold parts of the brick building together. A scaffolding around it protected pedestrians from falling debris.

“Sometimes in marginalized communities, there are conditions that you noticed and for a while you say, 'that’s not right,' and for a while, nothing happens to remedy that situation and then you kind of get accustomed to seeing that condition,” Endeleo Institute Executive Director Melvin Thompson said.

The history of the building at 95th and Halsted runs deep. Built in 1975, it was named after the historian who helped create Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. It also houses a historic collection of original manuscripts, documents and pictures centered around African American culture. The Vivian G Harsh collection is named after Chicago’s first black head librarian.

For more than 14 years after the scaffolding was installed, it sat around the library, with nothing being done. When WGN did a story about the library in February 2016, it was still in bad shape. Thompson and other community leaders pushed the Chicago Public Library to act for years.

"It got a bit contentious from time to time. We had a number of town hall meetings where voices got raised,” Thompson said.

Despite plans for a massive improvement project, years went by with no action. Then in November 2016 the library closed its doors to the public, and the $9 million renovation began.

The crumbling brick was replaced with a more durable material. There are dozens of new windows, a new roof, and a resurfaced and expanded parking lot. Inside, dark terrozzo flooring brightens up the foyer. And in addition to thousands of new books and 160 new computers, there's even a 3-D printer for patrons to use.

“The improvements are to the core part of the building, which we think brings this regional library up to the standard that makes us proud,” said Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon.

After years of inaction, which Bannon said was before his tenure, a state grant made the renovations possible. And 16 months of being without their home library, the community is truly excited about this “something almost new.”

"It’s beautiful. It looks like a building from downtown,” library patron Shayanne Davis said.

Attendance at Woodson is expected to see a 10 to 30 percent surge thanks to the renovation.

"Even the people who are driving by when I leave will make comments and say, 'thank you.' I’m so, so glad the outside has been redone,” said the library's new director, Lynda Schoop.

There are a variety of new programs being implemented, included one for dementia patients and their caregivers, and a schedule jam-packed with Black History Month events for the rest of February.