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What is more important for this city: a library or a police station?

In a community known for its glory across the country, the library is a vital resource for families who earn their living in the fields. But city leaders want their overcrowded police forces to move in.


We explore how America defines itself one place at a time. A fight over a beloved library has divided residents of this central California farming community.

MCFARLAND, Calif. – On one side of Kern Avenue in the small town of McFarland is the library. Bright and spacious, it fills with school children on weekday afternoons, providing safety until their parents return from harvesting grapes and almonds in the heart of California’s richest agricultural region. Children build with blocks and Legos, read books, play on computers. And they’re fed: a recent afternoon, a grilled cheese sandwich, carrots and chocolate graham crackers.

On the other side of the avenue is the gendarmerie. Two dozen employees share a bathroom; four sergeants pack into a small office. The walls are so thin that the chef turns on a white noise machine to have a private conversation. The property’s room is a tiny closet, crammed with cardboard boxes filled with confiscated handguns and smelling of sweaty clothes and seized marijuana as evidence.

Kenny Williams, who is McFarland’s police chief and city manager, looks longingly across the street. In a move that sharply divided the mostly poor farming community, he lobbied to take over the library, owned and operated by Kern County, and convert the building into a new police station. His argument: crime is exploding, the city is growing, the tax base is tight.

“We’ve run out of room,” Chief Williams said. “We have to grow. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

The starkness of McFarland’s choice — library or police station — reflects a growing debate in communities across the country about how much to spend on law enforcement in a post-George Floyd America, versus what it must be spent on other public needs, especially those serving disadvantaged groups.

Other McFarland town leaders, including council members, the superintendent of schools and the parks and recreation department, supported the police chief in his demands to the county. So does the most powerful voice in town: Jim White, a legendary coach whose transformation from the migrant community’s inexperienced cross-country team into championship contenders was portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film. McFarland USA.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in support of the police department’s proposed takeover, the coach called the library “primarily for child care”.

I recently drove the dusty streets of McFarland, with a population of about 14,500, on a weekday afternoon, past the cluster of businesses just off Highway 99 and beyond, where the vines covered white canopies provide many residents with a bare life. The streets were mostly empty until I pulled up outside the library to a bustling scene of school children, fresh out of class, rushing inside. Some were with their parents, others alone.

Vidal Santillano lives next to the library. He moved to McFarland from Mexico as a young man and earned his living in the fields, until he opened his own auto shop.

“I see it every day,” said Mr Santillano, 57, a former city council member. “I see these kids hanging out, doing their homework, doing what they’re supposed to do. If you take that away from them, you push them to hang out in places they’re not supposed to. So instead of helping the community, you push them away, to commit crimes and things like that.

Branch manager Amber Clarksean checked off the many programs — family board game nights, karaoke, chair yoga — the library offers in McFarland, where about 30% of residents live below the federal poverty line . “It’s more than just a book,” she said.

Perhaps more so than in more affluent places with more options, the library plays a vital role. On average, between 200 and 250 people walk through the doors daily.

These days, Ms Clarksean said she is often asked, “The police aren’t going to take the library, are they?” She said to them, “It’s not my decision.

For months, the dispute between the police department and the library has been in the local headlines. And so far, the library seems to be winning. Kern County officials resisted pressure to transfer the building, built in 1994 with federal money, to the city. They’ve even extended the library’s hours in response to complaints that it’s often empty, and are trying to help McFarland find other options.

But city leaders say there isn’t enough money to build a new police station, even as McFarland and its needs continue to grow. This year, authorities annexed some 2,200 acres of unincorporated land, nearly doubling the size of the city.

Mr. Williams proposed moving the library to a tiny storefront space currently occupied by a community health clinic for new mothers. Like the library, it is a vital resource for poor families. This proposal further angered some members of the community.

“Sadly, the city continues to struggle,” said Phil Corr, pastor of the Church of the Living Savior. As leader of the Friends of McFarland Library, he became the community’s loudest voice in support of saving the library, speaking at board meetings and writing letters to officials.

“I view this as a battle for civilization,” he said, while acknowledging that the police department needed more space.

For generations, McFarland has drawn immigrant farm workers from Mexico seeking a better life in the surrounding vineyards and almond orchards. Fields surround neighborhoods of modest, low-rise homes and a handful of businesses—a Dollar General, a florist, a few hair salons—and fast food joints that service truckers making the commute along Highway 99, running through central California. Valley.

The running program, a point of pride and a central aspect of the city’s identity, won several state titles before becoming the subject of the 2015 Disney film starring Mr. Costner. Running signs are all over town: a mural on a large water tank welcomes visitors with a list of championships; a runner anchors the city logo with the words “tradition, unity, excellence”; a movie poster hangs in the lobby of City Hall.

“It was really important to all of us,” said Marisol Barrios, a mother and student who visits the library almost daily, referring to the film. “It was so exciting.”

Ms Barrios, 32, was born in Mexico and moved to McFarland when she was 8. His father still works in the fields, picking whatever is in season. She recalls a poor childhood where “it was either about paying bills or getting meat.”

These days, when she’s not stocking the shelves of an Amazon warehouse, she’s at the library, studying for an associate’s degree in social services. She dreams of becoming a social worker. In the afternoon, his 4-year-old son, Valentine, joins him there, playing Legos or reading books. Her favorite: “Pete the cat: I like my white shoes”.

Ms Barrios said she was sad to see so many city leaders, including Mr Williams and Coach White, describe the library as a day care centre, contrasting it with the quiet place to do homework they remember of their own childhood.

“It’s better than being on the streets and getting into god knows what,” she said. “It’s better to have a noisy library than an unused one.”

The McFarland Police Department itself has a checkered history, which has added to the controversy. Created in 2010 (before that, the county provided public safety), the department has gone through several counts, including one who was convicted of using city funds to pay for home renovations. He also hired many officers with problematic pasts.

When Mr Williams arrived in February 2021, McFarland only had a part-time police force. Six agents worked from noon to midnight, without cover the rest of the time.

Throughout this time, gang violence has been a growing problem. The city has seen three homicides so far this year – the same number as last year – and all were gang-related, Mr Williams said. In October, after a string of shootings, including a drive through nearby Delano, several McFarland school sporting events were canceled.

When he urged the County Board of Supervisors in late September to turn the library building over to the city, Mr Williams argued that his community was on the border between the upstate and downstate gangs. . “So what do the gangs do? They come and they shoot themselves and our communities.

He told supervisors that he understood the value of the library. “However,” he said, “there is no explanation anyone can give me that would persuade me to believe that providing library service is more important than providing basic public safety service to the community.”

Mr. White, the former cross-country coach, who has lived in McFarland since 1964, also spoke out in favor of the proposed takeover. When I spoke to him this month, he agreed with the chief that the public safety needs of the city should come first.

In retirement, he remains a hero to many in the community. To some, his words sound like betrayal.

“He knows how much these children suffer when they have nothing,” said Mr. Santillano, the former town councilor who lives next door to the library. “He used to give kids tennis shoes so they could run back then.”

Mr. White, in our interview, bristled at the criticism. “I’ve supported the kids in so many ways,” he said, noting his support for scholarships, Easter egg hunts and other community events. He continued, “I’ve been very supportive of everything all over the city for young people.”

But her stance on the library has also stung Ms Barrios, the student studying to become a social worker.

“He saw so much potential in these kids,” she said, referring to the high school runners Mr. White turned into champions. “If he saw so much potential in these kids, why doesn’t he see so much potential in the kids who come here?”


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