The Heights

Ugly ducklings: Libraries Inside/Out ups the curb appeal at Randolph and Crenshaw libraries

Surrounded by well-kept family homes, the intersection of Given Avenue and Isabelle Street has a calmness to it. The streets are wide, the traffic is leisurely and the neighborhood is quiet.

So quiet, in fact, that some residents of the surrounding Heights neighborhood thought that Randolph Library, located on this corner since 1956, was no longer open to the public.

Branch Manager Amanda Hill frequented the library as a child and said not much has changed on the corner in decades. She’s met plenty of people who assume the branch is closed.

“I think it’s the institutional look,” she said.

But there are recent signs of new life stirring at 3752 Given Avenue.

Memphis Library Foundation's first update to Randolph Library is to remove the sign's metal frame and add lighting and a blue background, as depicted in this rendering. (Memphis Library Foundation)

Over the summer, the Memphis Library Foundation removed a metal caged frame and made plans to install a blue background and lighting to the Randolph Library’s mid-century modern sign, which is the first step in improving the facility’s curb appeal.

The update is part of Libraries Inside/Out, a grant-backed initiative that will improve the exteriors of two of Memphis libraries — with unprecedented input from residents.

In addition to Randolph, the project is revamping the Cornelia Crenshaw Memorial Library, located at 531 Vance Avenue in South City. Opened in 1939 as the city’s first library for African Americans, neighbors described the branch’s exterior to MLF partners as “gloomy” and “cold.”

Related: “The Cornelia Crensaw library is a "sanctuary" on Vance Avenue

MLF chose these two branches largely because on the inside they’re active neighborhood anchors with dedicated staff and strong customer bases, but outside it’s difficult to even identify the buildings as libraries.

“That’s why we named the project ‘Libraries Inside/Out,’ because we want the outside to look as good as the inside,” said Diane Jalfon, executive director of MLF.

By improving the libraries with changes like lighting, landscaping and accessibility modifications, MLF hopes to draw new customers and grow neighborhood pride in The Heights and South City.

Physical renovations at the two libraries kicked off in August and will continue until early December.

In July 2017, MLF received a $132,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to fund community engagement and implementation of Libraries Inside/Out at the two branches. MLF combined it with a $2,000 grant from the Memphis Garden Club earmarked for landscaping improvements.

The Libraries Inside/Out initiative began in September 2017 with branch festivals that kicked off months of community engagement including focus groups and on-the-ground surveying throughout the neighborhoods.

The Center for Transforming Communities led the planning for the community engagement phase, something that Jalfon said was a game changer for future library development.

“I think this has served as a pilot, so to speak, for exterior improvements going forward. Rather than just putting up what we think the neighborhood needs, it needs to be a collaborative, co-creative process,” said Jalfon.

Children listen to a story as part of Cornelia Crenshaw Memorial Library's Real Men Read program. The exterior of Crenshaw and Randolph libraries are in need of attention, but inside, they're bright and active centers of community. (Memphis Library Foundation)

Ultimately, the two communities focused in on six major opportunities areas lighting, signage, color, landscaping, seating, and better accessibility for people with disabilities.

Randolph’s lead artist Suzy Hendricks developed renderings of possible improvements based on the community feedback and the community consulted again in finalizing the design.

Each branch will have $32,000 to implement the exterior improvements.

“[The Randolph Library] is a great canvas to work off of. Taking that and combining it with the community input, it’s made my job easy,” said Hendricks.

The Randolph Library building was constructed in 1956 in the mid-century modern architectural style by Everett D. Woods, who also designed East High School.

Prior to this summer, the only major exterior addition in its 62 years was the metal cage around its sign that made it difficult to read and contributed to the perception the library had closed. MLF and the branch staff are unsure why it was added or what purpose it served.

Artist Suzy Hendricks' stained glass design includes stylized books, influences from African kente cloth, and bold colors common in Latin American art to represent The Heights' cultural diversity. (Memphis Library Foundation)In addition to the sign’s improvements, Randolph will get new benches, bright flowers and landscaping, new signage for the back entrance, an intercom system for people who need assistance entering, and a mosaic walkway that residents will help create.

Hendricks also designed stained glass additions to the entrances that are influenced by African kente cloth patterns and bold colors common in Latin American art to represent the area’s cultural diversity, which is an important design element for community members.

At Crenshaw Library in South City, lead artist Khara Woods’ designs include plans for a mural, landscaping, and a marker commemorating the branch’s namesake, Cornelia Crenshaw.

The staff and MLF said the changes may seem superficial, but they’re important to the psyche of the neighborhood.

“Over the years, it has seemed kind of forgotten, so it’s really neat to see the investment being made,” said Hill.

MLF, a nonprofit foundation that helps support for the library’s 18 branches, said that the City of Memphis budget can only fund staff and basic maintenance for the buildings and grounds with a small allocation towards collections. Without private donations, major updates just aren’t feasible.

“For some time, we’ve noticed that there are several branches that need exterior attention, but the city doesn’t have the capacity to address all of those [needs],” said Jalfon.

MLF chose the Randolph and Crenshaw libraries in part because they’re situated in neighborhoods with other active stakeholders and broader movements towards development and reinvestment.

In The Heights, the library’s staff and regular customers, Heights CDC, Gaisman Park, Treadwell schools, Streets Ministries, and several others were active in the engagement process to reimagine Randolph Library.

“This neighborhood has some very dedicated people working to improve it, and they deserve to have a library that exceeds their expectations,” said Jalfon.

Beyond the aesthetic changes, the many partners and residents hope to draw some positive attention to the branches and their neighborhoods.

“Hopefully it makes it more inviting, more engaging, and if you’ve never been here before, you think, ‘I’d like to go in and look and just see what’s going on in there,’” said Hill.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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