Prospects brighten for a Chinatown library

Carolyn Rubin (left), Stephanie Fan, and Lydia Lowe of Friends of the Chinatown Library discussed the proposals.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Carolyn Rubin (left), Stephanie Fan, and Lydia Lowe of Friends of the Chinatown Library discussed the proposals.

It’s been decades since Chinatown had a public library branch to call its own, but Stephanie Fan remembers it as a cozy space on the second story of a brick building at Tyler and Oak streets.

“I read all the fairy-tale books,” Fan said with a laugh. “The blue fairy-tale book, and the red one, and the purple one.”

In the early 1950s, the municipal building, with an outdoor playground and a gym on the third floor, served as a hub for a community of immigrants from China, Greece, and Syria. But construction of the Central Artery razed a string of properties, including, in 1956, the library’s building.


“It was not only losing the library,” Fan said. “We were losing the municipal gym, too. And for a lot of people who lived in housing where there was no hot water, they used the gym facilities as a bath.”

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Today, Chinatown is one of the only city neighborhoods without a library. And at a time when rents are rising, space is scarce, and Asians no longer comprise even half of Chinatown’s population, advocates like Fan say a permanent branch could help maintain the neighborhood’s cultural heritage.

Her decades-long campaign could be coming to an end. In last week’s State of the City address, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Boston was “finally bringing library services back to the Chinatown neighborhood.”

Though a permanent facility is still years away, the city hopes to begin offering temporary library services in the basement of the China Trade Center, on the corner of Boylston and Washington streets, later this year.

A $100,000 feasibility study for a permanent library is in the early stages, with consultants to be selected this week, according to the Boston Public Library’s president, David Leonard.


“We have served the community, I think, very well from the central library here at Copley Square in the meantime, and there are other branches that aren’t that far away,” he said. “But having a location in the space itself is very important.”

A group called Friends of the Chinatown Library, for which Fan is an adviser, was established in 2001 to build support for this project — first from the community, then from city officials.

There was no shortage of skeptics, said Carolyn Rubin, chairwoman of the group and an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. But she and other library advocates are cautiously optimistic.

They’ve been burned before. A feasibility study was completed in 2008, during the administration of then-mayor Thomas M. Menino, but nothing came of it.

This time, said Boston’s chief of civic engagement, Jerome Smith, the mayor’s office is committed to seeing things through — in part because the grass-roots demand for a permanent library has been so persistent.


“The Chinatown library was one of those issues that many different groups in Chinatown coalesced around,” Smith said.

Rubin said this is about more than a library: It’s about preserving the culture of a neighborhood whose low-income residents have been struggling amid luxury housing developments and rising rents.

“You can’t deny what’s happening to Chinatown in terms of gentrification,” she said. “I wanted my son to have something that he can look to — a library, a permanent space, that he can have as part of his experience growing up in this city.”

Oak Terrace Apartments includes a reading room.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Oak Terrace Apartments includes a reading room.

And though many Chinatown residents are pinched by rising prices, the neighborhood remains a draw for tourists as well as residents. In a little tea house on Tyler Street, Jasmine Thai and Michelle Tran, both Vietnamese-American high school students from Dorchester, said libraries are still useful for young people — even in the age of smartphones.

“I think phones keep us away from libraries,” said Thai, 15. “But a lot of kids don’t have computers at home, or don’t have supplies and resources, so I feel like libraries are pretty good for that.”

Tran, 16, agreed: “It does matter, because students can get resources for schoolwork,” she said, adding that she takes out books from her Dorchester library branch regularly.

Though they visit Chinatown often, they said, neither teen had heard of the library campaign.

But other local youth have been enthusiastic about it, including a group with the Chinese Progressive Association , which conducted surveys and lobbied for a Chinatown library. Even children as young as 7, from a school in Mattapan, marched on City Hall in 2014 to demand a library for Chinatown.

The mayor’s office did not offer budget projections or an exact timeline for a permanent facility. Leonard said “discussions so far have revolved around the three- to five-year time frame,” though he stressed it was too early to say for sure.

Given the slow pace of progress in recent years, advocates in Chinatown have tried to address the problem independently. In 2009 they opened a pop-up library in partnership with Street Lab, a small nonprofit. And in 2012, the community inaugurated a reading room in a space donated by the Asian Community Development Corporation, a developer of affordable housing.

Both closed within a year, leaving the Central Library at Copley Square as Chinatown’s closest.

Those experimental efforts relied entirely on grass-roots support and donations, said Lydia Lowe, who codirects the Chinese Progressive Association and is on the board of Friends of the Chinatown Library.

“We used those projects to prove to everybody how committed we were, and how much we really wanted a library,” she said. “They were meant to be temporary projects, but I think in a way it made the community feel even more frustrated, because it’s like, when are going to get a real library that stays?”

Jacey Fortin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JaceyFortin.