SALINAS, CA -- The reputation of this farming community, known as the Salad Bowl of the World, has been burnished by giants of American history like the civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, who organized the area's farmworkers, and John Steinbeck, a native son who borrowed images from the landscape and Depression-era residents in writing "The Grapes of Wrath."
The pride, fear and hope Steinbeck described were in evidence this weekend as residents, celebrities and best-selling authors gathered for a 24-hour emergency read-in to try to avert an unwelcome footnote to Salinas's legacy: the impending closing of the city's three public libraries.
Dolores Huerta speaks under a painting of girls reading outside Cesar Chavez Public Library in East Salinas, Calif., Saturday, April 2, 2005. The weekend ``read-in'' at the Cesar Chavez branch is designed to draw attention to the plight of the city's three libraries, which the City Council voted late last year to close this June. (AP Photo/ Monterey County Herald, David Royal)
Unless the city can raise $500,000 by June 30, the John Steinbeck, Cesar Chavez and El Gabilan Libraries will be shuttered, victims of the city's $9 million budget shortfall. If the branches are closed, Salinas will become the nation's largest city without a public library.
The read-in, organized by groups including Code Pink and the Salinas Action League, began Saturday afternoon and included a pitched-tent sleepover on the lawn of the Chavez library and readings by authors including Anne Lamott and Maxine Hong Kingston.
The actor Hector Elizondo, known for his work in the television drama "Chicago Hope," told supporters on Saturday that public libraries had been instrumental to his personal development and safety as a boy growing up in Harlem. Mr. Elizondo said that closing a library was "like putting a tourniquet around your mind."
"There were three sanctuaries - first was the subway, second the church and third was the library," he said. "It was a place where you could be creatively subversive, and it changed my life because through books, I started to question."
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, author of "The Dirty Girls Social Club," said her Cuban father learned English at the public library in Albuquerque. "We didn't come from money," she said. "Words were our only capital."
Word of the library closings has spread in recent months. The American Library Association sent a delegation to Salinas in February to meet with local and state officials. The mayor helped to organize Rally Salinas, a fund-raising group, and residents formed Save Salinas Libraries to explore a ballot measure. Last week, residents drafted a petition to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requesting long-term help in saving the libraries, because the $500,000 would only ensure that each library stays open one day a week through 2005.
The poignancy of library closings occurring in Steinbeck's birthplace has elevated the Salinas problem. But according to the American Library Association, branches across the nation have been forced to reduce hours, eliminate staff and thin inventories. Library services have been cut in Lancaster, Pa.; Onondaga County, N.Y.; and Detroit. The library in Bedford, Tex., closed its doors last Wednesday and will remain closed for at least six months.
Maria Roddy, the manager at the Cesar Chavez Library, said the Salinas libraries have been in trouble for the past three years, a tough situation for a community where 16 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. As in many poorer communities, Ms. Roddy said, the library serves as a public commons for children whose parents work.
Sommer Brooke, 11, a sixth grader who spoke at the read-in, questioned how Salinas could close libraries in one breath and ask schools to raise reading test scores in the next.
"It is like feeding someone but giving them no food," she said, "teaching children to read but cutting off their access."
City officials said the closings were forced in part by the defeat of several tax measures on the ballot in November. But some conceded that two measures failed because they did not specifically discuss how the libraries would have been affected.
Sergio Sanchez, a city councilman who voted to keep the libraries open, said that even if the state decides to help Salinas, the community must remain involved.
"We as citizens have to step up," he said. "There is no one else to help us."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company