“If we read more, we might become teachers, doctors, chemists or other useful men and women,” Francel Trotter, just 10 years old, told a room of U.S. senators in 1961.
The little girl, in her gold dress and “ribboned straw hat, ringed with white roses” was reading a letter on behalf of the children of Capitol View, a majority-black neighborhood in DC’s Ward 7, pleading for funds for a community library.
The now-defunct Washington Star reported at the time that Appropriations Subcommittee chair Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a stern legislator with a mixed, if not troubling, record on race issues, was impressed by Francel’s mature appeal.
“I would like to say that you have made the finest appearance before our committee today,” Byrd remarked when Francel had finished reading her letter.
Funds were secured by 1962 and the Capitol View Neighborhood Library opened at 5001 Central Ave. SE three years later, in 1965, after a 10-year community effort.
While Francel didn’t become a teacher, doctor or chemist, she did grow up to become the first female African-American judge in New York State.
No stranger to politics or the courtroom, Francel — now Francel Trotter Bellinger, retired and living with her husband Larry Bellinger in the Capitol View home she grew up in — is once again fighting a public battle for the future of the library she campaigned for as a little girl.
Last November Trotter Bellinger joined with Iola Anyan, who recently completed graduate school at George Washington University, in suing numerous DC public officials, alleging racial and socioeconomic discrimination in their allocation of resources for the renovation of the Capitol View Library. The Friends of the Capitol View Library and the Marshall Heights Civic Association are also plaintiffs in the case, in which six defendants, including DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, are named.
Since 2006, DC has rebuilt or renovated 20 branches across the District, with many of the projects creating modern, light-filled spaces that are unlike the branches built in the 1960s and 1970s. But Trotter Bellinger and Anyan allege that the residents of Capitol View and Marshall Heights, served by the Capitol View Library, have been treated unfairly throughout the entire renovation process, which included a scaled-back budget and use of a two-phase approach.
The Capitol View Library closed for interior renovations on Feb. 25, 2017, and did not reopen until Dec. 17, 2017 — nearly 10 months later. This first phase, funded with a $4.5 million budget, makes up the majority of the District’s ultimate $7.9 million allocation.
“First it was going to be a total rebuild of the library,” Trotter Bellinger said. “And then for some reason they decided not to do that. … We never figured out why.”
In a fiscal year 2013-2014 report, the DC Public Library had recommended a $22 million allocation for a full renovation or rebuild.
The budget was originally set at $10.5 million in 2014 but was slashed to $4.5 million the next year.
With the library’s interior renovations already underway, Trotter Bellinger, Anyan and other community members petitioned at countless hearings and DC Council meetings for full funding. In response, the Capitol View branch received an additional $2 million for exterior renovation, $700,000 for interim services during those renovations, and an extra $726,000 from the library’s general maintenance budget — bringing the total back up to $7.9 million. DCPL says this latter number could increase if additional funds are approved for exterior renovations.
“But what’s interesting is that they decided to go ahead with this project with a $4.5 million budget, knowing that this building was old,” Anyan said.
The text of the lawsuit cites an exchange between then-Council member Yvette Alexander and DCPL executive director Richard Reyes-Gavilan. When Alexander asked Reyes-Gavilan if DCPL would be able to meet the “definite needs of the library” with $4.5 million, Reyes-Gavilan sayie “Um … with an asterisk,” suggesting officials might have to look for additional funding if necessary.
Anyan said that the exchange demonstrates that DCPL knew from the outset that there wasn’t enough money to fully complete the project.
The community never got an answer as to where the $6 million went. While many want to know if the money went to fund renovations at another library — like Palisades or Cleveland Park — Keith Towery, chair of the Marshall Heights Civic Association, says that’s not the issue.
“The true issue is that the government felt comfortable enough to take such a substantial amount of money from a community that is underserved,” Towery said.
In striking down a request for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy J. Kelly rejected the claim that the budget allocation constituted intentional racial discrimination.
“In addition, plaintiffs argue that Capitol View Library’s renovation budget is well below
the average budget for a DCPL library renovation,” Kelly wrote in a court order. “Standing alone, this fact — even if accurate — does not demonstrate intentional racial discrimination. There could be many differences among these projects that explain why Capitol View Library’s renovations have a lower-than-average budget.”
One of the biggest problems for residents was that, during the first phase of renovations, the District did not provide an interim facility for residents of Capitol View and Marshall Heights, though it did offer some fill-in services.
“I had mentioned, ‘What about St. Luke’s across the street?,” said Anyan. “But it was very clear that [they] hadn’t even tried to look.”
According to DCPL spokesperson George Williams, the library system was unable to set up shop at St. Luke Catholic Church on East Capitol Street SE because, he said, the “Archdiocese board did not approve the request” to do so.
“Interim services were provided during the Capitol View Library interior renovation,” Williams said in an email. “Capitol View Library staff members were assigned to nearby libraries. In addition, Capitol View Library staff visited neighborhood schools, daycare centers, and early-learning facilities near the library. Generally, the library provides an interim facility when a library closure will last longer than one year and where there is no other library location nearby.”
Towery says the lack of an interim facility was his biggest qualm.
“A lot of people in the community use the library now not for books necessarily, but [for] the internet access because we live in a community where the average median income is pretty low,” said Towery. “You know the digital divide is below $30,000. A lot of homes in the Marshall Heights community are under $30,000. So a lot of people rely heavily on using the computers and the Wi-Fi and the internet there.”
When the library closes for a $2 million exterior upgrade sometime this fall (officials have not yet specified a date), the second phase of the renovation will include $700,000 for an interim facility at J.C. Nalle Elementary School on 50th Street SE, a few blocks from the library. This final phase is set to last three months, but DCPL has said interim services will be provided until the project’s completion, even if work takes longer.
Francel Trotter Bellinger said she and her fellow litigants decided to file the lawsuit because DCPL was ignoring the community.
“It got to the point where DCPL would not talk to us, they would not call us, they wouldn’t return emails, they wouldn’t return phone calls, they would not communicate with the community at all about what was going on,” Trotter Bellinger said.
Trotter Bellinger and Anyan say it has been an uphill battle to get DC officials to listen to the Capitol View and Marshall Heights community from the beginning.
“This lawsuit got their attention,” said Larry Bellinger, Trotter Bellinger’s husband. “It showed the community was serious about challenging the status quo. I don’t think they expected anybody to step up and be as fervent and committed as Iola and Francel.”
“It’s unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit in order to get that same respect that I’m sure other wards are just given automatically, but I think that’s just part of the civic process,” said Towery, adding that his community members need to be vigilant in demanding respect and resources from the District.
Larry Bellinger said the community’s message is simple.
“You shouldn’t treat Ward 7 like it’s Ward 7. It’s 2018,” he said, alluding to long-standing complaints that the east end of the city doesn’t receive the same level of city services as other areas do. “We shouldn’t have to fight these old fights over and over and over. If you’re going to do a redo [of] all the libraries in the system, then redo all the libraries in the system.”
“And redo them all equally,” added Trotter Bellinger.
Anyan and Trotter Bellinger are fairly pleased with how the library looks right now — it’s been transformed into a sparkling, light-filled space with two fully utilized floors. But, for them, the end result does not satisfy the process they and their fellow community members have had to endure.
“Don’t get me wrong, they did a nice job with what they had,” said Anyan. “But it’s just very clear that this project was never a priority in the eyes of our leadership. It was ‘give them the minimum and they’ll just take whatever we give them.’”
“I can’t complain because it is nice,” said Trotter Bellinger. “But if you compare it to what is on the other side of the river, it is not nice. And I hate to put it that way. Compared to what it was, this is awesome. I mean it’s beautiful. But compared to what’s on the other side of the river?”
And they still have unanswered questions about the building’s exterior.
Right now, in the front of the building, a fenced-off ditch with overgrown weeds is an eyesore. Anyan and Trotter Bellinger said they are not sure why this area, called a bioretention pond, is in the front of the building.
“It wasn’t presented in any proposal to the community that that would be in the front of the library,” said Trotter Bellinger. “And at one point it was so filled with water that we were concerned about the fact that children could end up in it. And then they put those ratty fences around it like that was supposed to prevent something from happening.”
“DC Department of Energy and Environment regulations require the Library manage stormwater from the building on site,” DCPL’s Williams wrote in an email. “The bioretention area is set up to collect and slowly release roof water into the municipal sewer system. It is located on the only portion of the Library’s property that is not hardscaped. The fencing will be removed as part of the exterior renovation.”
Anyan and Trotter Bellinger also expressed frustration that the new facade will only cover two sides, and that the District will not remove a short cement wall from the back of the building.
During the final phase, DCPL will be expanding four windows in the library’s front — a major priority for the Capitol View Library and an element sought by the Friends group. Williams also says DCPL is trying to get more money “to replace the fence in the rear of the library and clean the cement wall below it.”
The plaintiffs admit there’s blame to go around on all sides.
Anyan, Trotter Bellinger and Towery all contend that there was some level of negligence from within the community, saying that those who should have been holding the government accountable were not doing so. Anyan and Trotter Bellinger felt they needed to step up and fight for the library, and Towery said his organization decided it was important to join their coalition in order to hold the District to its word.
Towery said an “inactive community and inactive councilwoman [Yvette] Alexander” let the budget for the library slip. Alexander, who lost her council seat in 2016, declined to comment for this story due to the pending litigation, which names her as one of the defendants.
“The interest of people in the local community — even those who are supposed to be serving our immediate community — I think can be questionable, and the people that are being sacrificed are the people they are supposed to be serving,” said Anyan.
The lawsuit is still in the hands of Judge Kelly, with no upcoming court dates currently scheduled. DC has repeatedly moved to dismiss the case or rush it to summary judgment, but so far none of those efforts have been successful.
While Trotter Bellinger is skeptical her case will ultimately prevail in court, she thinks the lawsuit has already been, in some ways, successful because many of the demands have been met since the suit was filed.
“I think it’s been a success,” said Trotter Bellinger. “I don’t think they would have done any of the things that they have done [without the lawsuit].”
“I think that one of the benefits of this coalition was that the District government got to see that we can actually come to the table, voice our grievances, provide you guys with options to have remedies, and be a partner to work with you,” said Towery. “And then when we don’t feel like we’re being respected, we will go ahead and do what other neighborhoods and communities do and enter into a lawsuit to get the things that we need.”
A young Francel and the Marshall Heights Civic Association played their role in moving the community from bookmobiles to a brick-and-mortar library in the early ‘60s. It seems only fitting that they, with Anyan and their coalition, are seeing it through to the next chapter in its history.