“Never give up. Keep your thoughts and your mind always on the goal.” —Tom Bradley
The Tom Bradley Wing of the Central Library is a fitting tribute to the enlightened man who presided over Los Angeles for five terms as mayor. During his long tenure, he both inspired and executed amazing growth. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the wing named in his honor, a major question one may ask is, why was Tom J. Bradley so important to the Central Library?
Who was Tom Bradley?
Bradley was born December 29, 1917, to Lee and Crenner Bradley, once sharecroppers living in a small log cabin in Texas. They moved to Arizona, where Bradley, as a young boy, picked cotton along with his parents. While on the campaign trail decades later, in California’s Central Valley cotton fields, Bradley said, “That [experience] was enough. I could never fill that 25-pound bag.”
The family moved again, in 1924, to Los Angeles, near Temple and Alvarado streets, when there were now five children: Lawrence, Tom, Willa Mae, Ellis, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age, and Howard. Bradley excelled in school with the support of his family. He attended Polytechnic High School, where he was recruited to attend due to his athletic abilities in track and football. These early successes in his academic career propelled the studious Bradley to consider leadership as a personal goal. He earned an athletic scholarship to UCLA in 1937 where he excelled once again, but by Bradley’s junior year at UCLA, he felt the pull of public service and took the entrance exam for the Los Angeles Police Department. Placed near the top of the examinees [earning a 97], he left college to enter the department academy in 1940.
The Path to Politics
His effectiveness in bringing groups together while a police officer led to his next goal: serving on the Los Angeles City Council. He applied for the 10th District seat in June 1961 while still a police lieutenant, losing to Joe E. Hollingsworth. He ran against Hollingsworth three years later in April 1963, winning not one but two elections, one for the unexpired term left by City Controller Charles Navarro and the other for a full four-year term. Bradley was sworn in as a City Councilman, the first African American to do so, on April 15, 1963.
In 1969, he ran for mayor against the incumbent Sam Yorty, but lost. Most political pundits agree it was because of an egregiously racist campaign waged by Yorty. Undaunted, Bradley ran again in 1973 and won. He had his sights set on redevelopment and making LA an international city/hub. With the passage of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) 1974 redevelopment plan, places like the Bunker Hill financial district, the Warner Center, and Century City were developed to what it looks like today. Other projects include the construction of Los Angeles’ light rail network and expansion of the Los Angeles International Airport, which would later bear Bradley’s name with its completion in 1984. That year was a highlight on another level, as Bradley was the key to bringing the 1984 Summer Olympic Games to Los Angeles.
Bradley’s Library Love
Bradley spent just as much time planning and developing, as he did to establish human relations commissions in the city. He supported various ethnic and special interest groups with a focus on education and connecting Angelenos together.
None of his efforts were as far-reaching as his redevelopment plans for DTLA. He encouraged the inclusion of historic buildings in the development push and played a vital role in evaluating and preparing historic buildings in the event of emergencies like earthquakes or fire. As the driving force in establishing a fire safety plan for the Central library in 1978, he worked with the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAPD) to install fire alarms in 1980-1981, and created emergency first response drills and practices. Bradley’s foresight led to the swift and successful response to the first of two arson fires at the library on April 29, 1986, with no casualties among the 750 people involved at the scene, including patrons, employees, and firefighters.
Bradley’s strategic vision for the library brought together developer Robert F. Maguire III, ARCO CEO Robert O. Anderson, and City Council’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). He spearheaded the financing plan for the library which included the utilization of investment tax credits and tax allocation bonds; however, the most creative solutions proposed by the team of Maguire, Anderson, Bradley, and the CRA was the sale of unused air rights (the vacant space from the top of the building to the maximum allowable building height on the site) of the Library.
Maguire Thomas Partners subsequently purchased the library’s air rights for $125 million, almost the entire amount needed for the library’s expansion at $152 million. Under the terms of the agreement among the city, CRA, and the library commission, created after five years of complex negotiations led by Bradley, the deal to “transfer” the unused space was signed in January of 1985. Thanks to the creativity, persistence, and negotiation skills of Bradley and the other principals, the library’s renovation and expansion began. The east addition of the library was named for the man with the “creative air rights plan.”
After Bradley’s last term expired, he retired only to endure several years of health complications. He died at the age of 80 and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Carrying on the Mission for Change
Like Mayor Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles Public Library is a force for change, echoing his mission of improving the lives of all in the city. We provide free and easy access to information, ideas, books and technology that enrich, educate and empower every individual in our city's diverse communities. Visit us today!
Additional Resources and Reading List
- View the Documentary on Kanopy: Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race
- Tom Bradley in photos from our Tessa Collection.
Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.
References: The Los Angeles Conservancy, Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA.
Written by Ashley Singletary, Central Library Docent.