Books are for all neighbors, of all backgrounds
Last weekend, the New York Times, which earlier this year extolled the joys of the Little Free Library movement during the pandemic, published a Little Free Library op-ed that was, at minimum, bizarre. The writer Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote, “Is My Little Library Contributing To The Gentrification of my Black Neighborhood?” Kaplan owns a home in the traditionally Black suburb of Inglewood, also the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers. She had spotted the library phenomenon in “upscale, largely white neighborhoods” and wanted to bring it to her community.
But, lo and behold, one day Kaplan saw some white people stopping by her Little Free Library.
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“Instantly,” she writes, “I was flooded with emotions—astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!”
These white readers represented Kaplan’s worst fear: The gentrification and appropriation of her hard-earned land:
“I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.”
Gentrification is a problem in Los Angeles. As the city grows ever-more-expensive, neighborhoods previously off the radars of bourgeois white buyers, like Boyle Heights and Inglewood, have suddenly become more desirable. As the city changes, there’s tension. But that isn’t the fault of any specific individuals except for big-name real-estate speculators and house flippers, and certainly not the fault of random people who love reading and happen to be out for a walk.
All the criticism of Kaplan’s piece—and there has been a lot, at least in conservative media—has painted her as some sort of reverse-racist bigot. But more likely, she just chose a wrong, weird target for her fears. Little Free Libraries are one of the best things about our society, no matter the neighborhood.
I took this piece personally, as I have a strong emotional connection to the Little Free Library movement. Here’s a photo of a Free Library in front of a house I once owned in Austin, Texas. The owner named it “The Neal Pollack Commemorative Library” and dedicated it to “a writer of great significance and renown.”
Clearly, the Neal Pollack Commemorative Library could use a little upkeep, but there it sits, in a now-mostly-gentrified neighborhood. I attended the library’s dedication back in 2017, just a few months after my mother died. It was a high point in an otherwise terrible year.
My wife and I walk our dogs every day in a different neighborhood. Most days we do a three-mile loop that takes us past not one, but three Little Free Libraries. One of them seems to mostly house architectural magazines and submarine thrillers, another is a mish-mash of total junk, spiritual pamphlets, and literary fiction, and the third has a generally interesting mix of books. If I skip walking by it for a couple of weeks, I can usually find something fresh and desirable there. I borrow, and I lend, and I return. Once I even put a copy of my novel Jewball in one, just to see if anyone would bite, and it delighted and surprised me to find it gone the next day. Thank you, neighbor!
The Little Free Library is a vital and fun supplementary part of my everyday existence. My neighborhood is either middle- or upper-middle class depending on the block, but it’s pretty diverse, especially for Austin, an even mix of white, Chinese, and South Asian, with a few Black and Hispanic families in the mix as well. And the Little Free Libraries are for all of them. Any political or ethnic or economic differences I might have with my neighbors vanish at the public library, which we all use for free, and also at our many neighborhood Little Free Libraries. Anyone who loves to read is welcome on my lawn, or at least my neighbors’ lawns.
Here’s a photo of me, taken today, in front of my favorite Little Free Library. Just the other day, my neighbor, who I’ve never met in any other context, asked me if there was any type of book I wanted to see in the library. I said, “nope, I’m just glad you’re here.” As you can see if you look closely, the far right corner of the glass bears a sticker that says “You are loved.”
Despite the passive voice, that’s a statement that Erin Aubry Kaplan might want to keep in mind the next time she sees someone who makes her feel superficially uneasy browsing books, for free, on her front lawn. Little Free Libraries are not a tool of gentrification or any other form of white cultural dominance. They’re a source of multicultural community good that we should uphold and praise at every opportunity.