As the U.S. National Weather Service warned the Pacific Northwest of a “life threatening” heat wave starting last weekend, the city of Seattle issued guidance for staying cool. Part of the strategy to keep Seattleites safe in the record-breaking heat was to open the air conditioned Seattle Public Libraries as cooling centers. However, the Seattle Central Library — the largest library not only in the city, but in the state of Washington — was closed Sunday and Monday, the hottest days in Seattle’s recorded history.
Just before noon on Monday, Jim Melton, who lives in downtown Seattle, biked about a mile from his apartment, which he described as “an oven,” to visit what he expected to be a cooling center at the Central Library. According to the Census Bureau’s latest American Housing Survey in 2019, only 44% of Seattle homes have primary air conditioning installed, compared to 91% nationally.
“The Central Library and several neighborhood branches are reopening this week during peak hours,” an initial report from the Office of the Mayor June 21 read.
Though the original post specified that the Central Library would only be open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., several folks stopped by the library seeking cooling and other services, indicating that the messaging from the city of Seattle was unclear. Melton says he heard the Central Library would be open on the news.
Melton had blood on his nose, having just gotten into an accident, and was hoping to clean up and hydrate. Melton said he hadn’t had water in hours.
Despite signs indicating the location’s closure, Melton waited by the locked door on Fourth Avenue as he saw people inside. The building was at least somewhat staffed and was offering restroom hours.
Melton was only teased by a gust of the air conditioning when someone who appeared to be a security officer opened the door to turn him away. Melton told Real Change that after this experience, he did not think the city was doing enough to keep people safe during the heat wave. Melton said the next closest cooling station would be an uphill ride on his bike.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, Seattle Public Library branches have been on a long road to reopening. The Central Library, along with nine other locations, saw visitors for the first time in 15 months last Tuesday. At the time, that brought the total number of open library locations to 17 out of the city’s 26. In anticipation of the heat, 12 of these locations opened their doors as cooling centers sometime over the weekend and into the week, according to the latest report from the Office of the Mayor that was updated Sunday.
Read more of the June 30 - July 6, 2021 issue.