The Ramona Gardens housing project and its patchwork library

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Today, the Ramona Gardens Housing project in Boyle Heights is more known for its gangland affiliations than its literary aspirations. But one library is looking to change that one donated textbook at a time.

The 32-acre project houses almost 500 people, but children and their parents have spent years too afraid to cross over into CAM (Crazy A** Mexican) territory and use the nearby Malabar Public Library.

"There is a bridge right behind this building," says Kent Simmons, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). "All the kids have to do is walk on that bridge and there is a public library right across the street. They can't go there. It's different gang territory."

For years, the Los Angeles Public Library system set up a mobile library unit that would come to Ramona Gardens but funding cuts have striped Ramona Gardens of even that.

"When we found that out, we said that isn't right," said Simmons. "These kids aren't going to succeed unless we give them access to a library."

And so, in 2011 HACLA began to work onsite to create Ramona Gardens a library from scratch.

HACLA scrapped together 2,000 books in Spanish and English from the Los Angeles Public Library system and 3,000 books from Scholastic Inc. Publishers. The project falls under HACLA’s Step Up program, a scheme that aims to give youth access to educational tools such as textbooks, computers and the Internet.

Word quickly spread through Boyle Heights that HACLA was enlisting help in filling out the modular building that would be its future library. L.A. librarians and UCLA volunteers stepped up to the plate, painting the unit and organizing all the incoming books.

Nearby Abraham Lincoln High School donated — and continues to donate — textbooks to make sure kids have the tools to keep up with their homework.

Going forward, the Los Angeles Public Library will provide their librarians for monthly readings while the library itself will be staffed by HACLA employees and mothers from the community. Initially, the Ramona Gardens Library will not lend out books, but will provide access to unit computers.

And that is definitely not to be sniffed at, says Silvia Galan. The 36-year veteran of Los Angeles Public Library stepped in to help HACLA with establishing the library at Ramona Gardens.

Galan says that one of the greatest obstacles a low-income neighborhood can face is the digital divide.

"They do not have the money to buy computers for their homes," she says. "And even if they did, paying the monthly bill for WiFi or Internet access is an expense that most poor families cannot afford."

That leaves the public library as often the sole place people can access information.

"Without access to that, they are disenfranchised," Galan concluded. "Left out of the competition for real jobs."

There are 10 community-based cops who patrol the neighborhood everyday. In previous years, tension has been high between police and tenants.

“When officers would come in, our vehicles would be vandalized," said officer Harvey Dixon. "So we had to have a second unit to watch the cars when they handled the radio call."

Dixon has been working the area for about four months, but she's been a cop for seven years. And she says community-based policing is the way to go for close-knit neighborhoods like Ramona Gardens.

"I think doing a community based policing throws that perception of cops out the door," Dixon maintains. "Because you see the same officers over and over. You know the officers by their first names."

Now, the cops help out the neighborhood kids with their math homework and they will also be tutoring at the library.

Maggie Aguilar, who has lived in the community for 45 years, says this is one step of many Ramona Gardens has taken in the right direction.

"Ten years ago it was a really bad community," says Aguilar. "There was a lot of gangs and drugs and police and a lot of everything happening."

But now?

"It's beautiful now," she says. "You'll hear laughter. Kids playing. Kids riding their bicycles. Fathers playing with their kids. Throwing the football around. You can come out and barbecue without people messing with you or take something from you."

HACLA manages 9,300 housing units in L.A. and administers monthly housing assistance to over 100,000 residents.

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