Paradise on Hope: On the 25th Anniversary of the Central Library fire

“I have always thought that Paradise was a kind of library.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

On a November morning, a crowd soaks up the wan sun in the Maguire Gardens in front of Central Library. The lucky ones sip coffee out of paper cups, others slump in the stupor of the unslept. A black feral cat slinks out of the shrubbery to forage. At a quarter to ten, the waiting throng jockeys for position at the three entrances to the Central Library: Flower Street, 5th Street, and Hope. At 10 AM, a Library security officer unlocks the tall copper doors, swings them outwards. The crowd surges inside in a race to reach computers, magazines, warmth, chairs, public restrooms.

I’ve worked at Central Library for sixteen years now, yet the urgency of this morning ritual never fails to move me. After all, this is no mad rush for rock concert tickets or wide-screen TV’s. These people are hurrying into a library. This library is many things to many people—a place where scholars do serious research, where parents read aloud to their children, where jobseekers polish resumes. In the Literacy Center, volunteers tutor adults in reading, in the Popular Library commuters peruse audiobooks and in the public restroom near the 5th Street entrance, homeless women brush their teeth.

In the Mark Taper Auditorium, where I curate a lecture and performance series, Angelenos gather to listen to a physicist discuss black holes or a novelist extol “the human fidelity to beautiful ideas.” We’ve presented Zen archers and hiphop poets, a panel of bloggers and journalists helped us envision the rocky future of the Los Angeles Times.

The Central Library was built in 1921 during one of LA’s boom cycles. It may have been a time of shoddily constructed subdivisions, but the Central library was built to last. The building was a collaboration among the architect Bertrand Grosvener Goodhue, the painter Dean Cornwell, and the German-born sculptor Lawrie Lee. Goodhue’s intent was to mimic Egyptian architecture: topping the library roof is a pyramid tiled on all four sides with images of the sun. At its apex is a golden hand circumscribed by the Serpent of Knowledge and holding aloft a torch: “the light of learning.” The Goddess of Civilization, flanked by two black marble sphinxes, presides over the grand staircase to the rotunda. On her crown is a tiny replica of the library. Her staff rests on the back of a tortoise. On her the bronze breastplate are images of Romulus and Remus, the Egytian pyramids, the winged bull of Babylon, the goddess Shiva, a Minoan temple, a Phoenician ship, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Conestoga wagon, an American bison, and the Liberty Bell. From the facades of the building, bas reliefs of great philosophers and historians— Herodotus, Virgil, Socrates — peer down at all who enter.

The old building was a civic treasure; but it was stuffed to the ceiling with combustible material, lacked a sprinkler system, adequate ventilation and storage space for the collection. Recommendations on fixing the outdated building were doomed with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. On April 29, 1986–an arson fire that originated in the Rare Books Room of Central Library sent smoke billowing into the afternoon sky. It took over 360 firefighters from sixty companies to subdue the stubborn blaze.

smoke billows from Central Library, April 29, 1986 photo: LAPL Photo Collection

In the days and weeks that followed, many librarians joined the salvage effort, working in foot-deep toxic stew of soot, mold, and melted debris without protective gear. Many contracted a wicked chronic bronchitis from these efforts. (The perpetrators have never been apprehended.) Nearly 400,000 books were destroyed, but the disaster did have a silver lining, mobilizing the public and civic leaders to rally behind the Save the Books campaign to raise funds to rebuild Central Library.

In 1993, the expanded, renovated, technologically updated building opened to great fanfare. I began working for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that same year, with a mandate to create public programs. In my dreams that first year, I noted in my journal, Central Library often appeared as a maze, “with many secret areas as yet unopened to the public.”
……….

Every Thursday morning school groups visit Central Library. I watch the second graders sitting cross-legged on the marble floor of the Rotunda under the Zodiac chandelier. Their high-pitched voices blur in the vast hall. They look upwards with wonder and curiosity at Dean Cornwell’s forty-foot high California history murals that cover the vaulting walls. Cornwell, a magazine illustrator, completed them in 1932. The murals are visually delightful and—if you’ve read much California history—intellectually distressing. Cortez steps ashore. Muscular heathens kneel at his feet, heads bowed, offering gifts of beads and pelts. “ A chubby eight year old asks, “How did he paint it?” During Cornwell’s lifetime, a newspaper called the Central Library murals “the largest ever executed by one man since Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel.”

Fragment, Central Library mural by Dean Cornwell

The docent crouches down next to the boy, who is the same hue as the kneeling Gabrielino. She points out how there are over three hundred figures, each one outlined in pale blue. “Look, those are the padres, they are holding the building plans for missions. They walked the length of California.”

And I am back in my own fourth grade classroom at La Ballona Elementary in Culver City, melding flour, water, salt for my relief map of my home state. We constructed California missions out of popsicle sticks and learned that the Indians were grateful to be clothed, fed, and educated by the good padres. It wasn’t until my thirties, working on a documentary film about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California, that I learned the uglier side of California history—the forced conversions, repression of native languages, the official state bounty on Indian scalps the plunder of resources Indians needed to survive– all painfully symbolized by those subservient figures in Cornwell’s murals. I sit on the floor of the library and stare up at the Zodiac, thinking of Ishi— in his skins and seared scalp, mourning for his family.

There are plenty of books on the library’s shelves that tell about the rich culture of California’s indigenous peoples. I wonder if those second graders will someday possess the curiosity to seek them out and read them.

………

The library is open to all and, as the Great Recession tightens its grip, a growing number of L.A.’s homeless seek haven there during the day. The untreated mentally ill are among the regular visitors, ranting, sitting and staring, making entrances and exits through the lobby. A few weeks ago, a man attempted suicide in the library atrium. An email from the City Librarian went out to all staff: “A man jumped at 11:45 AM.” No one could agree from which floor—some said the third, some the fourth. A librarian in the Literature Department caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. Some said he took a running leap, others that he stepped over the railing without hesitation. Without a doubt, he fell onto the Atrium Lower Level 1, where the first security officer to reach him was Officer Kyles, who I happen to know can speak in tongues. Damage was done, blood spilled, bones askew. Officer Kyles stayed by his side. “Did you pray for him?” I asked later. He nodded somberly. “He wasn’t going to die on my watch.” The jumper did live, surviving surgery and a tenure in the ICU at County Hospital. Officer Kyles says they’re trying to find his family.

Recently, as part of our lecture series, the Surrealist poet Andrei Codrescu spoke about his Posthuman Dada Guide. During his talk it occurred to me that our jumper may have considered himself already in the posthuman world, that he’d moved on to the phase when one can exist half human, half bird.

……….

There’s a charming tiled fountain flanked by tangerine trees that I walk past every day en route to work, after climbing the stairs from Hope Street. It took years until I finally noticed the quote chiseled in the marble: “WISDOM IS THE RIPE FRUIT OF MUCH REFLECTION.” The converse is now etched into my mind as well: ignorance is the unripe fruit of much inattention.

After all, for years I exited the library onto Hope Street at the end of every work day, without realizing this was the same Hope Street inscribed on my birth certificate. It wasn’t until Cornerstone Theater mounted a site-specific production of “Candide” (re-titled “Candude, the Civil Servant”) in the Central Library that I made the connection. At the climax of the play, the actors lead the audience on a journey through one of the library’s underground tunnels and, at the finale, the hero Candude flung open the doors onto Hope Street. “Hope!” he cried, “here it is.”

Hope Street, where I was born, just six blocks away from Central Library. I haven’t come far from my origins. Perhaps that’s why the idea of Central Library as a hearth of the city resonates so deeply with me. This life-quickened repository of wisdom, an un-virtual world where we daily interact with serpents of knowledge, goddesses of civilization, scholars, bodhisattvas, poets, madmen, would-be suicides. Where every morning at 10 AM (while there’s still the budget and the public will to keep it open), the eager crowd rushes in.

[Written 2009, published originally in The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today, Red Hen Press, 2010]

4 Responses to “Paradise on Hope: On the 25th Anniversary of the Central Library fire”

  1. Sarah Jacobus Says:

    Louise,
    What an elegant and moving tribute…I remember April 29, 1986, so vividly: seeing the smoke across the 110 as I drove to my job teaching at Belmont Adult School nearby, my nervous anxiety throughout the evening’s classes, using radio reports of the fire as a listening exercise for my advanced ESL students, hurrying over as close as I could get to the library after school to stand in grief and witness, feeling as if a member of the family was in jeopardy. Your piece brings it all back, with the coda of hope. The library rose like the phoenix then, and if Measure L is an indication, the people will keep it rising.

    Thanks for the beauty and power of your words, Louise.

  2. Wonderful piece, Louise!

  3. Charlotte Innes Says:

    Louise, you continue to astound me with your beautiful writing! I came to LA in 1989 and I remember when the library was restored, and how happy I was, but now I feel I never looked at it closely enough, and I will certainly go back and look again! What you say about the mural and the truth of the treatment of native people here brought me close to tears. (I just taught Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony” to high school students–a book that catches the essence of it all, and more.) Also, your previous piece about “Lent’s Passage” –hugely moving! Thank you.

  4. You weave the personal into the larger civic and political view so beautifully in this piece, Louise. You really are an Angeleno, aren’t you? How amazing, in this age of transience, to work six blocks from where you were born! Love the title, too.

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