In a community known for its cross-country glory, libraries are an important resource for families who make a living in the fields. But city leaders want to move the crowded police.
why we are here
We explore how America defines one place at a time. A battle over a beloved library has divided the residents of this Central California farming community.
MCFARLAND, CA — The library is on one side of Kern Avenue in the small town of McFarland. The bright and airy store fills with school children on weekday afternoons, ensuring safety until their parents come home from picking grapes and almonds in the heart of California’s richest agricultural region. Children build with blocks and Lego, read books, and play with computers. Late afternoons feature grilled cheese sandwiches, carrots and chocolate graham crackers.
Across the street is the Metropolitan Police Department. 20 employees share a bathroom. Four sergeants are crammed into his one small office. The walls are so thin that the chief activates a white noise machine for private conversations. The property’s rooms are tiny closets stuffed with cardboard boxes full of seized handguns and smelling of sweat and marijuana seized as evidence.
Kenny Williams, McFarland’s Chief of Police and Mayor, looks across the street with envy.In a move that has sharply divided mostly poor farming communities, he Push the library to take over, owned and operated by Kern County, will convert the building into a new police station. He argues: Crime is exploding, cities are growing, tax bases are tightening.
“We have no room,” said Chief Williams. “We have to grow. There are no ifs, ands, buts about it.
The stark choice between libraries and police departments facing McFarland is about how much to spend on law enforcement in a post-George Floyd America, how much to spend on other public needs, especially those who serve. It reflects the growing debate in communities across the country about what should be done. disadvantaged group.
Other city leaders in McFarland, including city councilors, school principals, and the Parks and Recreation Department, supported the police chief’s request to the county. Jim White, played by Kevin Costner in the movie McFarland USA, is the legendary coach who turned his team into championship contenders in the immigrant community’s inexperienced cross-country.
Speaking at a public rally in support of the proposed takeover of the police station, Coach dismissed the library as “mainly for babysitters.”
I recently drove through the dusty streets of McFarland, population about 14,500, on a weekday afternoon, past a cluster of businesses just off Highway 99, and further into the white canopy of vines in the distance. provides a bare life for many residents. The street was almost deserted until I parked my car in front of the library, and schoolchildren who had just finished their classes were running around frantically. Some were with their parents, some were alone.
Vidal Santillano lives next door to the library. He moved to McFarland from Mexico when he was young and made a living on his fields until he opened his own auto shop.
“I see it every day,” said Santirano, 57, a former city councilor. “I see these kids hanging out, doing their homework, doing what they’re supposed to do. Taking it away from them basically makes them hang out where they shouldn’t be.” So instead of helping the community, you end up pushing it away, committing crimes, etc.”
Branch manager Amber Clarkshawn confirms the many programs the library offers to McFarland, where about 30% of its residents live below the federal poverty line: family board game nights, karaoke, and chair yoga. Did. “This is more than just a book,” she said.
Libraries probably play a more important role than wealthy places with lots of choices. On average, 200 to 250 people walk through our doors every day.
Clarkshawn said recently people often ask, “The police aren’t going to take the library, are they?” She tells them, “That’s not my calling.”
For months, a rivalry between the police department and the library has made local headlines. And so far, the library seems to be winning. Kern County officials have resisted pressure to hand over the federally funded building to the city in 1994.they too Extended library opening hours In response to complaints that it often remains empty, it seeks to help McFarland find other options.
But city leaders say they don’t have enough money to build a new police station, even as McFarland and its needs continue to grow. Annexed acres of unincorporated land, nearly doubling the size of the city.
Williams suggests moving the library to a small storefront space currently occupied by a community health clinic for new mothers. The proposal further angered some in the community.
Pastor Phil Core of the Church of the Living Savior said, “Unfortunately, the city continues to fight. As leader of the Friends of McFarland Library, he advocates for saving the library, speaks at council meetings, and writes to officials. and became the most vocal community voice.
“I see this as a fight for civilization,” he said, also acknowledging that police stations need more space.
For generations, McFarland has drawn immigrant farm workers from Mexico in search of a better life in the surrounding vineyards and almond orchards. The countryside is dominated by modest, low-rise homes and fast-food joints (Dollar General, a flower shop, and two barbershops) serving truck drivers as they travel along Highway 99 through central California. Surrounding some businesses. valley.
The cross-country running program is a proud and central aspect of the city’s identity, winning several state titles before becoming the subject of a 2015 Disney movie starring Costner. The signs of victory are everywhere in town. A large aquarium mural greets visitors with a list of championships. The runner anchors the city logo with the words “Tradition, Unity, Excellence”. Movie posters hang in the lobby of City Hall.
“It was really big for all of us,” said Marisol Barrios, a mother and student who visits the library almost every day, referring to the film.
Barrios, 32, was born in Mexico and moved to McFarland when he was eight. She recalled her impoverished childhood where “it was either pay her bills or get her meat.”
These days, when I’m not shelving in Amazon’s warehouse, I’m studying for an associate’s degree in human services at the library. She dreams of becoming a social worker. In the afternoons, her 4-year-old son Valentine plays with Lego and reads. His favorite is “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes”.
Barrios said he was sad to see many city leaders, including Williams and White Coach, describe the library as a nursery, in contrast to a quiet place to do homework to reminisce about their childhood. Told.
“It’s better than going out into the street and finding out what God knows,” she said.
The McFarland Police Department itself has a complicated history that has fueled controversy. The department, created in 2010 (before which the county provided public safety), includes one of her convicted of using city funds to pay for home renovations. , has been touring several chiefs.We also hired many officers troubled past.
When Williams arrived in February 2021, McFarland only had part-time police. Six officers were on duty from noon to midnight and were uncovered the rest of the time.
All the while, gang violence was a growing problem. Williams said the city has had three murders so far this year, the same number as last year, all linked to gangs. In October, several sports events were held at McFarland’s school after a series of shootings, including a drive-by in nearby Delano. Cancel.
When he asked the county board of overseers in late September to hand over the library building to the city, Mr. Williams claimed his community was on the border of gangs in the north and south of the state. What do you do? They come and shoot each other and our community.”
He told his supervisor he understood the value of libraries. No one can give you an explanation that will make you do it,” he said.
White, a former cross-country coach who has lived in McFarland since 1964, also spoke in support of the proposed acquisition. I agreed with the chief that this should be given top priority.
Even after retiring, he remains a hero to many in his community. For some, his words feel like a betrayal.
“He knows how it hurts when kids have nothing,” said Santirano, a former city councilor who lives next door to the library. “He used to give his kids tennis shoes so they could run.”
In our interview, Mr. White defied criticism. “I have helped children in so many ways,” he said, referring to supporting scholarship runs, Easter egg hunts and other community events.
But his attitude towards the library also bothered Ms. Barrios, a student studying to become a social worker.
“He saw great potential in the kids,” she said, referring to the high school runner Mr. White became a champion. “If he sees so much potential in the kids, why doesn’t he see so much potential in the kids who come here?”