Keller Library & Community Center: A Story of Resilience and Determination
On April 4, 1954, the New Orleans Public Library opened its 11th location at 3841 Washington Avenue as the Norman Mayer Broadmoor Branch. It made a splash as the first air-conditioned public library in New Orleans, but it closed in 1981 due to the building’s significant structural problems.
Twelve years later, it reopened inside the historic Hardie-Fattel House on the corner of Broad and Napoleon Avenues, where it still sits today. In 1997, it was renamed to honor Rosa F. Keller, the first woman to be appointed to the Library board and an important force in the 1954 desegregation of the New Orleans Public Library system.
In 2005, Keller was one of six Library locations completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, closing it for more than five years.
The Broadmoor neighborhood as a whole suffered extensive damage from the storm. In early 2006, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission released their plans, suggesting much of Broadmoor be turned into a drainage park. However, the neighborhood’s outspoken and dedicated community balked at that idea and quickly organized against that plan with one of their own.
Led by now-Mayor Latoya Cantrell and longtime resident Hal Roark, the Broadmoor Improvement Association successfully lobbied for their neighborhood — not only saving it from demolition, but also raising a phoenix from its water-logged ashes in the process.
The BIA formed a variety of resident-led committees to rebuild their neighborhood, including one dedicated to revamping the neighborhood’s “education corridor,” with visions of a combination library and community center. On that committee sat Dara Baird, a lawyer and longtime Keller Library user.
“It really is incredible to see what the Keller Library has become,” Baird said. “I come here all the time, at least once or twice a week before the pandemic. The staff here is wonderful; the building is beautiful. It’s just a wonderful thing to have in the neighborhood, and I’m proud to have been a part of that.”
Baird and her neighbors would finally reap the benefits of their hard work in March of 2012, at the grand opening of the new and improved Rosa F. Keller Library & Community Center. In the meantime, Keller Library started operating as soon as it could, out of a trailer parked in the courtyard in 2008.
From that trailer, Yasco Sulejmanagic watched as Broadmoor came back to life. He was hired as a Library associate at Keller in 2010 and still works there today.
“Operating from out of a small trailer space with three other staff members, offering a limited selection was challenging. However, I knew that every day our work made an impact in this community,” Sulejmanagic said.
Looking back, he said providing even those limited resources was invaluable for the community, bringing a sense of worth, legitimacy, and pleasure back into the storm-ravaged neighborhood.
“I have seen firsthand how far Broadmoor has lived on. I feel honored to have played a small part in that growth,” he said. “So many people tell us that this Library and the Community Center are the best things in the neighborhood, which is very diverse in age, race, and income. We have something for everyone here; that’s why it’s so important to people.”
Thomas Walsh moved to Broadmoor around the same time Sulejmanagic started working at Keller and said even though the services were limited, he loved it.
“They were still in a trailer, and they didn’t have much. But I was still a big fan of it, even then. So then when it reopened in this brand-new facility, it was just amazing. And it’s been totally awesome to see it grow and transform into what it is now,” Walsh said. “It’s a really special part of the neighborhood; I feel so lucky to have it, basically, in my family’s backyard.”
Walsh now shares his love for the Library with his two children, 6-year-old Leah and 3-year-old Curran.
“We live a few blocks away, so we walk here all the time,” Walsh said. “They’re both totally crazy about books, and they love coming here. They used to love all the storytimes and events, and we’re looking forward to having those back. But also, just being able to come into the Library with them again –– to have them pick stuff out and make decisions about what they want, look at books together –– it’s tremendous. It’s so much fun.”
After its reopening in 2012, the Broadmoor Improvement Association would continue to be an important Library partner and a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Natori Green, the BIA’s communications lead & volunteer coordinator said the Library’s partnership has been especially vital during the pandemic.
“We so appreciate our partnership with the New Orleans Public Library to maintain the Community Center as a resource for everyone,” Green said. “The gracious accommodation of Library staff has helped us to bring a sense of normalcy and connection to our community even in the midst of the pandemic.”
The Walsh family took full advantage of the Library’s services when buildings were closed to the public last year, but Thomas said they couldn’t be happier to be back inside.
“The contactless service was fantastic, and the little craft kits have been great for the kids but, it’s just not the same. We missed it, it’s great to be back,” he said.
This article is part of the Library’s monthly Location Spotlight series, highlighting the unique stories of the individuals, families, and communities that use each Library location, and the staff that keeps them running. To have your Library story told, email firstname.lastname@example.org.