Library closed for five years, reopens after renovation
Students on the Evander Childs High School campus in the Bronx don’t have to open a textbook to learn about history. They now have unparalleled online resources in their newly reopened library media center – and can experience history up close, within the library’s four cherry wood-lined walls. After being closed for renovations for five years, the library recently reopened, revealing a previously concealed skylight, state of the art technology hubs and delicately refurbished murals, dating back to the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
As part of LMC21, a New Visions library renovation program, the Evander Childs campus, named after a well-known dedicated Bronx principal from the early 1900s and now home to six small schools, received $1.2 million from the New York City Council in 2007 to renovate the outdated space.
“The library is the only shared academic space in the school, so it was important that we revitalize it and give the students access to the newest technology, in efforts to continue bridging the achievement gap,” said Linda Williams Bowie, New Visions’ LMC21 senior program officer.
Representatives from each of the six schools came together to form a library advisory council, a group that would meet with architects di Domenico + Partners over four sessions to re-envision the existing library as a cutting edge 21st century media center.
“The collaborative effort has been successful and rewarding," said Paul Alber, senior associate at di Domenico. “The process has created exciting contemporary spaces that ultimately transform the outdated library into the 21st century.”
With the renovation complete, the space is now fully equipped with over 50 computers arranged in a rotary at the center of the library, allowing for classes to be conducted, and with computer stations throughout the library, allowing for individual student work. The design also re-introduces the abandoned skylight that had long been hidden and forgotten, brightening the space with diffused light, drawing visitors’ eyes to the vibrantly painted murals surrounding the space.
The murals, known as “The Evolution of Western Civilization,” were painted by James Michael Newell as a part of the WPA in 1938. Newell conferred with the school administration to incorporate aspects of the Evander Childs campus community into his depiction of western civilization.
An essay by Newell archived by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s Web site provides background into the mural’s genesis. “Wherever possible I have used as models people from the school,” Newell wrote. “The engineer, the man pouring glass, the gentlemen of the jury—are all connected with the school, so that a great variety of people have contributed to and are enjoying sharing in the work. In time, of course, these resemblances will be forgotten and my mural will stand on its essential meaning.”
Over time Newell’s essential meaning of the murals got lost in the racial tensions of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. In the murals, African Americans were depicted as slaves picking cotton and naked men and women, stirring up a barrage of controversy for the school’s students of color.
“When I was a senior here in 1966, the murals weren’t as controversial because the students were mainly Jews and Italians,” remarked Linda Resnick, graduate and former teacher at Evander who was present at the ceremony. “But, when I came back to become a teacher here in 1970, many of my students were African American and Jamaican immigrants who had moved into the neighborhood. They were outraged and found the murals highly offensive.”
As time went by, tensions surrounding the murals continued to rise and the murals were vandalized. In 1999, the school administration commissioned local Bronx artist Manny Vega to help students create a new mural, one that would allow them to depict themselves and their community in a new light.
The new mural, which lines the hallway outside of the library, displays faces of diverse students and the words “I AM” emblazoned in bright green graffiti across the top. Passersby can also get a glimpse into the minds of the student artists by reading the mural’s personalized quotes: “I am a teenager from these streets...I worry that the problems we face are not only class but race.”
The murals inside the reopened library now provide greater context for the student murals in the corridor. Students present at the library reopening ceremony were surprised at what had been hiding behind the doors of the library. “This space is amazing and these murals are so historic,” said Kim Nguyen, senior at Bronx Academy for Health Careers, a New Visions school. “The students here now have an advantage that I didn’t have – books and history right at their fingertips.”
"In my twenty years as a librarian, I've have never experienced working in a space as beautiful and historical as the Evander library, added Myrna Kinkle-Ansah, the campus' librarian. "I look forward to assisting students with the plethora of resources that the new library provides."
Each of the campus’ six schools will start bringing classes in for lessons on the library’s history, murals and resources. In the near future, a local artist will be commissioned once more for another student mural, which will include the presidency of Barack Obama.
“This school was meant to be a cathedral of learning that leaves an impression on the community and stresses the importance of education,” said Chris Ligares, principal of the Bronx Lab School. “This library is the soul of that cathedral of learning – a place where students can come, exchange ideas and learn new things that will make them critical thinkers and proactive citizens of society.”