BackgroundI am writing regarding Matter S02023-0002990, an ordinance introduced to the Transportation and Public Way Committee by Alderman Lopez to restrict the construction of public bookcases (Little Free Libraries) on public property.The proposed ordinance would prohibit individuals from building and maintaining a free library, only allowing “organizations, not-for-profit entities, and licensed businesses” to apply for the necessary permits. (Block Club: “Little Free Libraries On City Property May Soon Require Permits,” 10/3/23)
Block Club asked Alderman Lopez about whether neighbors who have built Little Free Libraries on public property would be allowed to keep them. He declined to answer the question, saying only that “they should get ready to have that conversation about the structure’s future.”Some ThoughtsIn the summer of 2018, I installed a free library box in the parkway planter outside my house in Wicker Park. My wife and I had lived in our house for a few years, but we still didn’t know our neighbors.The library became a small way for us to connect with the people on our block. Within a week of installing it, neighbors started coming by to fill it with books. People would look up from their phones, kids would peer in, and it became a spot in our neighborhood to meet people and have a conversation. “What are you reading?” “Did you like that book?”
Five years later, many of the neighbors on our block know one another; we text about local news, we watch each other’s houses, we ask whether that was a gunshot or fireworks, and we even lend each other tools and cookbooks.
People make small gestures like building a free library because they feel lonely, atomized, and alienated, and they are looking for a way to extend greetings and goodwill toward their neighbors. The need for these private gestures represents decades of policy failure: the gradual privatization and destruction of our shared civic space. When neighbors overcome those obstacles and create a little spot to meet and speak, is it such a threat to the city that it has to be regulated into oblivion?
Alderman Lopez’s ordinance would remove something lively and wonderful and replace it with nothing. This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic overreach that makes regular people mistrust their government and think that their elected officials hate them.
What is the logic for such a ban? Maybe some of these libraries impede the sidewalk or are built unsafely. I’ve never seen that, but maybe it happens. In those scenarios, no new ordinance is required. Instead, Alderman should just do their job. They should go do constituent services. Go talk to the homeowner. Figure out a solution. People vote for politicians who solve problems in their lives, not for politicians who create them.
And speaking of creating problems - let’s play out a ban on free libraries. Overnight, they will become a symbol of defiance. Little libraries will be punk rock. Everyone will put one up. It will be a national news story. Activists will install them guerrilla-style in City Hall. At night, kids will wear ski masks and illegally place libraries outside of their district police station. A ban on free libraries will breed nothing but disobedience and contempt for the politicians who design and enforce it. We already have one political party in this country fixated on banning books - do we need another?
I hope that anyone considering voting for this ordinance could have some communion with the issues that regular people deal with in Chicago. I think you’ll find that Alderman Lopez is alone in his belief that the biggest problem in our city is people reading and sharing books.
Surely, one of the things that makes Chicago a great city is the melting pot of neighborhood cultures. Family restaurants, murals, local bars, community gardens... this is what gives neighborhoods texture and character. No organization starts these things. No non-profit, no company, no government. What makes these things successful and authentic is people coming together to create and share something on their block. And what a pleasure it is to have a feeling of ownership and investment in your neighborhood!
Instead of hunting down and smothering these little embers of civic spirit, can’t our Aldermen spend their time building community in their own wards and empowering their constituents to do the same? Or if that’s too difficult, can’t they get out of the way and focus on rat abatement?
Max Temkin is a designer who lives in Chicago.
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