Life Sentences, Day 121: Strawberry Fields

January 29th, 2011

Want hope for America’s future?  Go to Cerritos, California.

I just got back (this is late Saturday night) from an all-day mystery event at the Cerritos Public Library, in the town of Cerritos, which is East and South of Los Angeles, not far from Anaheim.

That’s the library, up there — a towering, curving mass covered in hammered titanium, inspired by Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum, that houses one of the most beautiful and most functional spaces I’ve ever seen.

Cerritos is a small town.

This library should be a national destination and a national symbol for community priorities and self-reliance.  It’s not just enormous and beautiful.  It’s extravagantly creative and it’s completely paid for — by the community.

Here’s the entrance to the Children’s Library.

The television screens run live footage from a camera pointing at a bench just inside the entrance.  Kids sit there, giggling at themselves and screaming from time to time, because their images are superimposed over an animated dinosaur that’s behind them and keeps bending down to eat them.

To the left of this entrance is a floor-to-ceiling aquarium that kids flock to.  It forms one wall of the children’s library.  And inside, kids see — what else? A giant tyrannosaurus statue and a cloudy sky that goes slowly from day to evening and back again.  Little kids with books are everywhere.

Not that the adults have been overlooked.  Here’s one (of several) sets of computer workstations.

The library has been a Cerritos priority for more than forty years.  It 100% paid for by the community’s residents and merchants; it has zero debt.  The planning began in the late 1960s, and ever since then the community has floated and purchased its own city bonds, contributed through community drives and “friends” organizations and, essentially, made the library a primary civic priority. At one hand, when expenses got out of hand, a proposal was floated to to turn the whole thing over to the state, but the community voted it down and ponied up.

When the commitment to the institution was first made, the ground on which the library now stands was used for growing strawberries.  In fact the first groundbreaking, scheduled for April 1972, was put off for several months to allow the final crop to ripen.  For some reason, that knocks me out.

And Cerritos, while not a depressed area, is no Beverly Hills.  They made a decision that the library should be one of the centers of community life, and they stood by that decision for decades. How long since we’ve seen Washington or a state capitol persevere like that?  Other than in wars, I mean.

Cerritos is a widely diverse community — mainly pan-Asian, but also white, Hispanic, and African-American — with a broad spectrum of socioeconomic levels.  And it’s got books at its heart.

Oh, and it’s also home to the top-performing high school in California, Whitney High — which U.S. News & World Report identified in 2010 as the third best in the United States.  Gee, wonder if there’s any connection.

What we need are 100,000 communities like Cerritos.  Just might turn things around.

9 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 121: Strawberry Fields”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    HAHA! I grew up in Cerritos AND I went to Whitney for three years. 😀

  2. Bonnie Says:

    Proud to say we have a gorgeous new library in Castro Valley, too (the town the time forgot). Not only are the space and functionality breathtaking, but my landscape-architect best friend, Lynelle, says the landscaping is also top notch environmentally. Once a month I volunteer there as the “lawyer in the library,” and I’m now joined by another female attorney. There are all kinds of community functions, including lectures by authors and a mediation program for neighbor disputes. These pictures show opening day, when people formed a line between the old library and the new and passed books along the mile and half or so. Makes me tear up just thinking about it:

  3. Laren Bright Says:

    In addition to this hopeful blog, this morning a friend sent me a link (
    to a 97 second video of an Israeli doctor whose brother was killed by Hamas members. So he decided to do something. What he did was not seek revenge, but rather, he created a volunteer organization that helps Palestinians — especially children apparently — get to excellent medical treatment.

    My response to that, much as my response to Tim’s blog today, is how can we see more of this kind of “good news?”

    If we create our reality by what we perceive, and if most of what we perceive is the divisiveness and conflict presented by the greater media (though, to be fair, the YouTube video was part of the CNN Heroes series), then what is the reality we are continually creating for ourselves to live in?

    I don’t know that there’s a way to change what’s presented to the general population, however I guess I can influence my own perceptions by what I choose to assimilate into my own consciousness.

    I sure don’t mean to ignore the bad and only see the good. I do mean that I can choose what to dwell upon in my own personal reality.

    Thanks for the glimpse at this great library.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    These are beautiful pictures because of the spirit they embody. My small town library has be fighting for years to get a new building; I may forward this to them. Bonnie, your pictures are charming, and you can see the pride and emotion of these folks. I believe there are people who will continue to make things happen, and create (there’s that word again) functional beauty. Just as there are people with good hearts and minds. The things is, can they prevail?

  5. suzanna Says:

    I am very fortunate to live in a place where our community is well vested in our library system and in education in general. The city along with many “Friends of the Library” refurbished the main branch of the library to its original glory and it is such a wonderful thing for our community.

    A world class university at our doorstep that has some of the best research libraries in the world is also something we are very lucky to have but unfortunately I don’t take advantage of that nearly enough.

    Great reminder to read more and to spend more time at the library so thanks for this, Tim.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hooray for you, Sylvia. Imagine: a functional community that puts literacy and education high on its list or priorities. And from what people are writing here, it seems as though we have others, too.

    Bonnie, maybe Man and I will move to Castro Valley. The town that time forgot sounds right to me. Time hasn’t been very kind to a lot of places lately. Towns like yours and Suzanna’s and Cerritos really do represent shining examples that the rot and ugliness of so much of the modern age (do I sound old, or what?) can be, if not reversed, at least held at bay. The pictures are wonderful; no wonder the memory chokes you up. And whoever thought of the line of patrons passing books from hand to hand should be moved into the Oval Office immediately.

    Laren, what an inspiring video, and what an inspiring response. That’s the kind of moral clarity we all need, and one of the reasons Mun and I love you guys so much. Just a great, great response.

    Lil, I know your library has probably thought of everything. The Cerritos library already had the full sympathy and energy of the city government, and they floated bond issues that raised most of the funds. One other thing I admire about the Cerritos library is that when they were in the hole they passed up an outside “rescue” proposal that would have made their library part of a much larger and much more dysfunctional system If they hadn’t it would probably be underutilized and scarred by graffiti now. I hope your community rallies around its library.

    Suzanna, you do indeed live in an exceptional city, with higher learning right next door as an example of why we need to set high goals for our kids and help them achieve them. Wouldn’t it be nice if this spirit could spread? And by “this spirit,” I mean (a) putting important things first, and (b) solving problems locally. Look at the people of the Gulf — still waiting for the stumblebums in Washington to take action.

  7. Sharai Says:

    This blog has just been bumped up into “exceptional” status. Reading your posts of yesterday and today back to back gave me the same rush I used to get from ditching class to go to the ocean!

    We humans need beauty and inspiration just as much as food and water. You answered an unanswerable rant with a concrete example of the central theme of your blog, CREATIVITY. This small piece of art speaks to me of what could be the next CCC program for California. Creativity, Cooperation, Children.

  8. Robb Royer Says:

    The question in my mind is – why? What made Cerritos rise above the ennui, stupidity and sense of entitlement that grips nearly every other American community? A great leader? If so, who? Something in the water? Apparently not fluoride, right Phil? How did one town rise above greed and the addiction to instant grat and continue a noble vision for more than a generation? Any idea?

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Sharai — it was dumb luck that the Cerritos experience happened the day after I posted the rant, but I’m happy that the two went together so well, And I love the CCC campaign.

    Robb — I don’t know how it all got started, but I’d be willing to bet that the past 25 years or so owe a lot to the 58% Asian sector of the population — mostly Korean and Chinese — who insist on good schooling and the systems to support it. (Tiger Mothers, anyone?) The top-rated high school is public, but students need to qualify to enter it; the others go to another high school, which has a considerably lower ranking.

    It’s interesting, though, that education isn’t the only city accomplishment. Cerritos has a beautiful performing arts center and the only solar-powered city hall in America. The city really likes to be independent; it formed its own power company, in partnership with four other towns, and its own school district, in partnership with two others, which is why the deadening hand of the LAUSD hasn’t destroyed Whitney High School.

    Really interesting place.

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