St. Paul Pioneer Press © September 12, 2006
We’re told from childhood never to judge a book by its cover. Heeding that advice, in this instance, would keep you from the best parts of the story.
From the outside in, the new Rondo Community Outreach Library is gushing with pride and promise in the heart of a neighborhood hungry for both. While other buildings in Frogtown shrink from view, as if in fatigue or shame, the new library hugs the sidewalk and beckons passersby to look inside through tall, wide windows. People following through on the visual invitation are treated to plush easychairs, a fireplace, brushed steel fixtures, high ceilings of blond wood, angled lighting, cozy computer stations, an espresso bar and CDs and books in several languages.
The apartments and townhomes above, accessed from Aurora Street and dedicated to those below the median income, feature tall ceilings of polished cement, exposed aluminum and modern appliances. The first tenants move in next month.
Saturday’s grand opening was everything civic leaders and library officials hoped. The library was crammed with the old and young, people born on the other side of the world and those who’ve known Frogtown as their only home, entire families that had the date circled for weeks and people just wandering by on their own, in wonder about all the commotion inside.
In the community room just off the entrance, Tou Ger Xiong, a hyper, dynamic storyteller and puppeteer, had about 150 people in stitches as he beckoned his audience to call out “Go Hmong boy, go Hmong boy, go!” The energy throughout the day was electric yet warm — it had little to do with a “grand opening” and everything to do with a grand vision.
Yes, design does matter. Libraries aren’t new to this part of St. Paul — the Lexington Outreach Branch, which this library has replaced, was just a half-mile to the west — but respect and reverence for the people who live here is uncomfortably uncommon. You don’t see it in the big boxes, the nearby fast food joints or the low-slung strip malls and their sweeping parking lots that double as welcome mats.
There’s nothing magical about the library’s architecture and interior design, but they treat the people who will use the library as family rather than commodities to be moved in and out once they’ve spent their money. And don’t cast the difference simply as a matter of function. Commerce and character go together, and strong, caring design creates positive energy and good will.
Inside the Rondo library, it’s easy to forget what often happens outside, to forget the adult theater that sat at this corner long ago, to forget the poverty and undercurrent of racial tension squeezing in from all four sides. The library is a respite and a beacon that, like the music and books housed inside, is sure to inspire people to open the cover and devour what’s inside, to think beneath the surface of what they see and feel every day along University Avenue, to new worlds of possibility.