IT'S difficult to explain exactly what being poor is all about, or why access to books and ideas might be as important as a free breakfast. But helping others to understand that became important as I thought about the 115th Street branch of the New York Public Library, in Harlem.
The branch, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue, has been closed for renovations since July 2002. The work was meant to be completed in January 2004. Now it's expected to be finished in the spring (exactly when isn't clear).
No doubt the library officials are doing the right thing by renovating and refurbishing the old building, which opened in 1908. And a temporary branch has been set up a few blocks away, although it's a small fraction of the size of the original - just one room in all.
But what's missing is a sense of urgency - a recognition that lives are at stake.
As a child growing up in Harlem, I measured my life, and my potential, by what I saw around me. I saw first that I was black and poor. My father was a janitor, and my mother, never very healthy, cleaned apartments when she was well enough to work.
There was no single event that traumatized me, no devastating storm in my life, but slowly the life of the poor began to grind me down. A murdered uncle, an alcoholic parent, the realization that there was no way that I could afford college brought despair to my life. The promising 14-year-old I had been became the 15-year-old chronic truant who had to report to a city agency once a week for supervision.
But amid the chaos, I found a refuge. It was the New York Public Library. Not the research libraries, but the neighborhood branch where I would take out three or four books each week in a brown paper bag to avoid the comments of my friends who thought I was "acting white." When I felt least wanted by the world, the library became my bridge to self-value.
As I stumbled, on the verge of becoming a statistic in the juvenile justice system, increasingly angry at a world that I felt did not belong to me, the George Bruce branch library on West 125th Street was my home away from home. The 115th Street branch is similarly a sanctuary for residents in its neighborhood.
The library was the one place in my world that I could enter and participate in fully despite empty pockets. In the library stacks I could consider a novel by Gide or Balzac or Hemingway, and join a universe that would otherwise be denied me. There was no way I could have afforded to buy the books.
In the quiet surroundings of the library, I was safe from the hostility that many inner-city children encounter when they look to extend their lives intellectually. And, if the hostility was there when I was a child, how much more do young people face in an age in which the heroes are gangsta rappers?
I speak with thousands of young people around the country each year: youngsters in middle school, high school students and children in juvenile detention centers. I've learned that they all experience a period of transition, a time when they stop thinking of life as something that will happen to them in the future, and start examining where they are in the moment. It is at this time that their lives are most shaped by the reality of their circumstances and by their ability to escape those circumstances by reaching out for ideas that will eventually define their success in life.
For me, at that moment, the library was crucial - its doors opened onto the American dream. That's why, when I see a neighborhood library closed for years, even temporarily and with the best of intentions, I am troubled. How long can we, in good conscience, keep those doors closed?