The Northtown Library: An Educational Haven for Refugees Once More
By Rathin Shah
In the center of one of the largest Hasidic communities in America is the old Northtown Branch library on California Avenue at the border of Chicago’s “Little India”—just a 5-minute walk from Patel Brothers. Since its construction in 1962, this library has played an active role in the inclusion of immigrants from Myanmar, Croatia, India, Pakistan, and Israel. In 2019, when the city announced the Northtown Library was moving to a new location on Western Avenue, this location with decades of history within it was abandoned, leaving its 57-year-old wooden chairs and tables to collect dust.
In January 1962, the 125-foot wide, ranch-style Northtown Library on 6435 N California Ave. opened to the public featuring three large rooms with fluorescent lighting, an acoustic tile ceiling, and textured concrete walls. The construction of the library followed the increasing West Ridge immigrant population as the previous library on Devon Avenue could not accommodate the large demand.
As the West Ridge community expanded through the growth of immigrant families, the library’s popularity grew as well. In just its 3rd year of operation, the Northtown Library already circulated over 270,000 books, the largest circulation of any library in the North Side area. By 1986, the Northtown Library had the highest circulation of any Chicago library.
Moving to West Ridge in 1998, FORA communications volunteer Colette Martin-Wilde frequented the Northtown library often. The library, she reports, supported children and diverse groups of the neighborhood.
“The library gave people and families access to information…it served as an ad hoc after-school safe space where kids could go and do their homework. It was important to the community to believe in that safe space,” Colette explains. “Also, with an ever-expanding refugee/international community, it provided a lot of material in a variety of languages which supported those people.”
The library’s impact on children’s education cannot be understated given that about half of the library’s collection was children’s books. Throughout the library’s history, the library gave volunteer and learning opportunities for students. In particular, the library developed a “Teen Study Center,” a room designed and run by teens for other teens to study in groups in the library’s auditorium area.
Shoshanah Haberman, a student at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, reflected on her experience volunteering at the Teen Study Center, writing, “Although we each have different religions, nationalities, and backgrounds, we share a common ground…As a Jewish girl who has always attended Jewish schools, were it not for the library, I would not have had the chance to become friends with people who are not Jewish”
Over time, the over-50-year-old library was due for a much-needed upgrade.
“Northtown was pretty small and somewhat limited,” mentioned Collete. Former patrons opted to frequent more modern libraries in other neighborhoods. In 2015, community organizations petitioned for a new library to be constructed featuring a larger facility, an updated computer system, and a dedicated reading room. In October 2016, Alderman Debra Silverstein announced that a new library would be coming to West Ridge, and finally, in March 2019, construction finished and a new, state-of-the-art library was opened on 6800 N Western Avenue.
Despite hopes for the old Northtown Library to become the “West Ridge Cultural Center,” the library remained closed since 2018. However, the focus on serving the needs of the local community was realized when FORA purchased the site. The library’s history of integrating marginalized groups is retained in FORA’s vision to support refugees from Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria, and Eritrea, and others who will come in the future.
“Generations of immigrants came to that library to learn to read and write and we will continue that tradition with refugee students coming to FORA,” said Kathleen O’Connor, co-founder and president of FORA. “We will help them get the educational skills that they need to chart their own course in life and be part of our community here in Chicago.”