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What’s More Important for This Town: A Library or a Police Station?




In a community known for cross-country glory, the library is a vital resource for families who eke out a living in the fields. But city leaders want their crowded police force to move in.


We’re exploring 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 city of McFarland is the library. Bright and spacious, it fills with schoolchildren on weekday afternoons, providing safety until their parents return from harvesting grapes and almonds in the heart of California’s richest agricultural region. The children build with blocks and Legos, read books, play on the computers. And they are fed: on a recent afternoon, a grilled cheese sandwich, carrots and chocolate graham crackers.

On the other side of the avenue is the police department. Two dozen employees share a bathroom; four sergeants pack into one small office. The walls are so thin that the chief fires up a white noise machine to have a private conversation. The property room is a tiny closet, stuffed with cardboard boxes full of confiscated handguns, and smelling of sweaty clothes and marijuana seized as evidence.

Kenny Williams, who serves as McFarland’s police chief and its city manager, looks across the street with envy. In a move that has sharply divided the mostly poor farming community, he has been pushing 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’re out of room,” Chief Williams said. “We have to grow. There’s just no ifs, ands or buts about it.

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

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

Speaking at a public meeting in support of the police department’s proposed takeover, the coach dismissed the library as “primarily for babysitting.”

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 farther afield, where grapevines covered in white canopies provide many residents a bare living. The streets were mostly empty until I pulled up in front of the library to a bustling scene of schoolchildren, just out of class, scurrying inside. Some were with parents, others on their own.

Vidal Santillano lives next to the library. He moved to McFarland from Mexico as a young man and scratched out a living from 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 are supposed to be doing. If you take that away from them, you are pushing them to basically hang out in places where they are not supposed to. So instead of helping the community, you are pushing them away, to do crime and things like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Williams has proposed moving the library into 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. That proposal further angered some in the community.

“Regrettably, the city is continuing to fight,” said Phil Corr, pastor of the Church of the Living Savior. As the leader of Friends of McFarland Library, he has become the loudest community voice in support of saving the library, speaking at council meetings and writing letters to officials.

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

For generations, McFarland has drawn immigrant farmworkers from Mexico looking for a better life in the surrounding vineyards and almond orchards. The fields surround neighborhoods of modest, low-slung homes and a smattering of businesses — a Dollar General, a florist, a couple barber shops — and fast-food joints that serve truck drivers making the haul along Highway 99, which runs through California’s Central Valley.

The cross-country running program, a point of pride and central aspect of the city’s identity, won several state titles before becoming the subject of the 2015 Disney movie starring Mr. Costner. Signs of running glory are everywhere in town: a mural on a large water tank greets visitors with a list of championships; a runner anchors the city’s logo with the words “tradition, unity, excellence”; a movie poster hangs in the foyer of city hall.

“That 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. “It was so exciting.”

Ms. Barrios, 32, was born in Mexico and moved to McFarland when she was 8. Her father still works in the fields, picking whatever is in season. She recalled an impoverished childhood when “it was either pay bills or get meat.”

These days, when she isn’t stocking shelves in an Amazon warehouse, she is in the library, studying for an associate degree in human services. She dreams of becoming a social worker. In the afternoon, her 4-year-old son, Valentine, joins her there, playing Legos or reading books. His favorite: “Pete the Cat: I Love 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 day care, contrasting it with the quiet place for doing homework that they recall from their own childhoods.

“It’s better than being out on the streets getting into God knows what,” she said. “It’s better to have a loud library than an unused library.”

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

When Mr. Williams arrived in February 2021, McFarland had only a part-time police force. Six officers worked noon-to-midnight shifts, with no coverage the rest of the time.

All the while, gang violence has been a growing issue. 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 series of shootings, including a drive-by in nearby Delano, several McFarland school sporting events were canceled.

When urging the county board of supervisors in late September to turn over the library building to the city, Mr. Williams argued that his community is on the border between the state’s northern and southern gangs. “And so what do gangs do? They come and they shoot up each other and our communities.”

He told the supervisors that he understood the value of the library. “However,” he said, “there is no explanation that anyone can give me that would persuade me to believe that providing a 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 in support of the proposed takeover. When I talked to him this month, he agreed with the chief that the city’s public safety needs should come first.

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

“He knows how these kids hurt when they don’t have anything,” said Mr. Santillano, the former city councilman who lives next door to the library. “He used to give kids tennis shoes so they could run, back in the day.”

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

But his stance on the library also stung Ms. Barrios, the student studying to be a social worker.

“He saw so much potential in those kids,” she said, referring to the high school runners Mr. White shaped into champions. “If he saw so much potential in those kids, why is he not seeing so much potential in the kids that come here?”