The People’s Library Continues Despite City Crackdown



Book lending and community gardening continues in front of an abandoned library in Oakland’s San Antonio district despite a police raid earlier this month. The historic building, a gift from Andrew Carnegie to the city back in 1918, was a branch library until 1976. Two other ventures have come and gone, but the building’s been vacant since 2001. The city says it’s not safe to use.

The blighted property has since attracted drug use, prostitution, and violence. So when activists moved in to reclaim it, local residents enthusiastically joined the effort.

A neighborhood mom and her daughter sort through newly donated books.
  • Kyung-Jin Lee
  • A neighborhood mom and her daughter sort through newly donated books.
The city says they’re trespassing and has sent police to lock down the building. Residents say they just want to clean up their neighborhood.

In the evenings, the building at 1449 Miller Avenue in East Oakland looks like a vibrant community center. There are garden beds planted with broccoli, kale and strawberries; crates of books stacked on the sidewalk; and mothers and children playing.

But the building is closed. No Trespassing signs are nailed to the doors. And none of the people outside can go in. 1449 Miller Avenue used to be a library, but it’s been vacant for more than a decade, and the city hasn’t maintained it.

On August 13, activists — many from Occupy Oakland — arrived to try and change that. Starting around 7am, they cleared out debris, put a fresh coat of paint on the walls, stocked some books, and opened the doors. And they put up a large canvas displaying the library’s new name: the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, or Victor Martinez People's Library, after a local poet and author.

Forty-three-year-old organizer Jaime Yassin says they lent out their first book at 7:30am, to a man who stopped in on his way to work. The man took three books and shook the organizers’ hands. Yassin says, “The whole time he was very effusive.”

Residents of all ages stopped by throughout the day. People donated books and checked out books, lingered on the street and built garden beds in the backyard.

“We’re going around here to support what [the activists] are doing to clean it up because this place is overrun with prostitution, drugs, and trash,” says resident Zenobio Vasquez.

But at 11pm, the police arrived. They told the activists to leave, which they did, peacefully. City public works employees boarded up the front door and posted the “NO TRESPASSING” signs.

The next morning, the activists came back. They transferred the books to the milk crates that now line the sidewalk. Organizer Jaime Yassin says the residents were surprised.

“They were like, ‘How could city shut it down knowing what happens here?’” says Yassin. “Almost any other outcome is better than what it is right now.”

To read the rest of this story — and listen to the audio version — visit