The city of Dallas only owns one recreational building in the North Dallas neighborhood of Vickery Meadow, the Vickery Park Branch Library. That desert of public buildings east of Central Expressway and Park Lane makes that library an integral place for the community.
It is not merely a provider of books. It is a provider of language classes, GED training, music classes, and a community heating and cooling center that springs to life amid unexpected tragedy or severe weather. The grayish building is shaped like an ellipse with a looping courtyard. Inside is filled with computers, hot spots, printers, and books. In times of need, this is where residents can access water and air conditioning. It “meets those that it serves at their points of need,” says Patricia Ramirez, the Vickery Park Branch Library manager.
To the east of the library, across Ridgecrest Road, are Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School and Sam Tasby Middle School. To the north is a church. Scattered in all directions are apartment complexes and homes, filled with residents who often walk to the library for its books, services, internet access, or a place to rest. Much like the various libraries across the Dallas area, it’s a community building. A hub.
During the pandemic, the Vickery library changed just as the rest of the Dallas Public Library system did. Fearing a downturn in tax revenue, the city manager adjusted the budget by cutting funding and hours to the city’s libraries. They were no longer open seven days a week.
As a result, staff levels dropped and so did the opportunities for the library to provide for the community.
Now two years later, the Dallas City Council last week unanimously approved a budget that expanded library hours at 15 branches around the city from five days a week to six. Vickery Meadows’ library will be the first to return to seven-day service through an amendment proposed by its council member, District 13’s Gay Donnell Willis.
Willis’ amendment allocates an additional $130,000 during the next fiscal year for the Vickery Park Branch Library, which will allow it open for the full seventh day. In the 2023-24 fiscal year, that funding increases to $175,000.
The seventh day of library coverage was something Willis believed the community in her district needed.
“It’s silo-busting,” she said. “This gives people in the community, seven days a week, a safe space they can go to for what they need.”
She prioritized the Vickery branch because of the library’s role within the community.
During a City Council meeting last month, she explained that the Vickery library functions as “a resource for learning and community, but it’s also a respite for people in extreme weather.”
Anne Harding, District 13’s Municipal Public Library board member, saw Willis’ initial idea flourish based on the premise that having the Vickery Library open leads to accessibility for a community in Dallas that doesn’t have the volume or quality of services found in more affluent neighborhoods.
“Libraries are essential, even in non-emergency situations. Local libraries can provide stability and services that may not be directly associated with libraries,” Harding said. “They provide lunches, they provide help with taxes, and they provide internet access. They are a place where you know you can go, spend time, and just be. And for a lot of people, they may not have that at home.”
Willis says that 30,000 residents live within a mile of the library and 80 percent of those individuals are low-income. Two-thirds are people of color. The library and its services help “expose people to doors that hadn’t been open to them before, because they may not have known those doors existed,” she said.
Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who chairs the Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture committee, supported the amendment for many of the same reasons.
“Anytime there are financial challenges municipalities face when balancing their budget, it seems that there are low-hanging fruits that seem to be on the chopping block,” he said. “And that is almost always libraries, arts, and parks. But in reality, there is a correlation between taking vital resources away from a community, and an increase in unproductive behavior and crime.
“It’s almost a catch-22 for decisions like the one that was made to cut funding. … The communities that resources like libraries help the most also get hurt the most when funding to resources are cut.”
With increased hours at libraries around Dallas comes both safe spaces and creative programming that keeps people out of the streets, he said.
He’s seen it work in his libraries in his District 7. The northeastern part of the district features the White Rock Hills Branch Library. In the far east, there is the Skyline Branch Library. Meanwhile, the Martin Luther King Branch Library sits in the southeast part of the district. All three libraries have acted as more than libraries throughout Bazaldua’s term.
They have held community meetings and neighborhood functions. They each served as polling locations for local, state, and federal elections.
“Libraries are the most important resources in our taxpayer portfolio,” he said. “It’s how we make an impactful difference in our residents’ lives.”
The added funding in the new budget may signal that Dallas is eager to reengage with its local libraries, prioritizing a direct community need.
That’s why Bazaldua supported more money for Vickery.
“Our libraries took substantial hits during the pandemic when we had to make necessary cuts to our budget,” he said. “A lot of times those libraries are a lifeline for certain communities. They are the big brothers, the mentors, the college readiness, the homework help, and the gateway to economic mobility. Without having those resources and opportunities, we have done our part in forcing communities back to the street. That is what we are trying to prevent.”
With the increased hours across 16 libraries in Dallas, and Vickery returning to seven-day coverage, the city will need to staff up as all libraries work to return to pre-pandemic numbers. Though challenging, Ramirez is choosing to look at the challenge of hiring as a good problem to have. It comes with a return to normal, she says, which means a return to full-scale services for those who need them.
“Opportunities are coming back,” Ramirez said. “This is for the people. We need to put resources in the hands of the community, and one of the ways they do that is by opening them longer for more days and more hours. Is it an expense to the city? Of course, it is. But we are investing in the people of the community.”