Go Ask Alice

By Jessica Laskey

Library Volunteer Knows How to Get Things Done
February 2019

Alice Levine’s favorite projects are those that “get built and have a long public purpose.”

A city planner by training, the Poverty Ridge resident has put her schooling to good use during her 32 years in Sacramento by helping to save the Ella K. McClatchy Library when it was on the brink of closing—including refurbishing the upstairs to host art shows and other community gatherings—and to reopen the Southside Park public pool.

“I feel like Sacramento is the city that doesn’t know how,” Levine says, referring to the city’s penchant for trying—yet often failing—to make improvements to infrastructure. “That gives people like me an opportunity to get involved.”

Levine had just moved into the neighborhood in 1995 when she received notice that the Sacramento Public Library’s McClatchy branch, around the corner from her house, was going to close. The library was former home to the owner and editor of The Sacramento Bee, Charles McClatchy, and his wife Ella. Built in the early 1900s at 22nd and U streets, the home was converted into a library in 1940. Determined to save the historic site, Levine and other concerned citizens met and formed the nonprofit Ella K. McClatchy Friends to raise funds to keep the library open.

Levine was voted the group’s first president—a position she held for 19 years. The Friends sponsored and oversaw a significant renovation in 2013, as well as the opening of the library’s second floor for the first time since 1969.

“The original idea was to use it as a cultural center,” says Levine, who has also volunteered extensively for her daughter’s schools and youth theater productions (her daughter studied opera and now works in marketing in the Bay Area). “We thought the community could use the room to host salons, art shows, discussions, cultural events, political events, meetings for the neighborhood association—anything you can imagine.”

Levine and two other women, Nancy Gotthart and Lynn Eder—both of whom served on the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s now-defunct public art committee—formed a committee to organize quarterly art shows and talks upstairs. The library’s umbrella organization offered a matching grant for the first year of shows (exhibiting artists receive an honorarium and an opening reception) and the group just celebrated its fifth year of exhibitions.

“It’s wonderful seeing how busy the library is now,” Levine says. “I almost wept with joy on Election Day seeing so many people dropping off their ballots and standing in line to vote. Volunteers brought candy and cookies, and waved a flag if it was someone’s first time voting. The entire neighborhood turned out—2,000 votes came out of our library.”

All of that activity largely can be attributed to the work of volunteers like Levine who use their extensive expertise to get things done. In Levine’s case, she used her ability to navigate bureaucracy to arrange the library’s renovation with the city manager and her power of persuasion to convince the YMCA to take over operation of the Southside pool instead of shutting it down.

“It’s been a surprisingly wild ride,” Levine admits. “I’ve had to use everything I learned in city planning school—it’s all about figuring out who you need to convince and how.”

Though Levine is planning a move to Santa Cruz within the next year (her husband just retired and they’re craving beach time), she’s committed to making sure the library is set for the future.

“To be a democracy, we must have an educated citizenry,” Levine says. “The key to that education is public schools and libraries. We have to keep that idea in the front of our minds—a reminder to make space for knowledge and awareness, as well as community activities.”

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com.

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