Today is my four year Detroitiversary.
Last week, I went to see a band from my hometown play here in Detroit. They play American music from past decades and are very good at it. When I was growing up, my parents’ friends were musicians who played the blues and 1920s music. So, the band the other night sounded like home in a way I at first couldn’t name: That’s what St. Louis sounds like. That’s the sound of having red brick and river mud running through your veins.
When I walked into the club, a man dressed like a dapper cowboy looked at me like he was trying to figure out if he knew me, but it was dark and I didn’t think I knew anyone who looked like that. When he came out onstage playing washboard and a harmonica with the band, I thought I know those eyes. He kept holding my gaze. It took me half the set to figure out: His piercings are still the same. Oh my god, we went to some of the same parties when we were teenagers. We both grew up in Tower Grove South.
People say that folks from St. Louis will inevitably ask you, “Where did you go to high school?” It’s thought that your high school determines your whole life forecast in parochial little St. Louis. And after the set, we talked. For the first time in a good while I got asked a permutation of that question: “Didn’t you go to Gateway?” My family moved to the Chicago suburbs before I started high school, but I would have gone to Gateway and it’s strange to think that information is still encoded into my DNA. I guessed: “You went to Central, right?” “Yes.” “Creative city kid. Makes sense.”
We talked about growing up in South City. We both attended summer school at Enright and then urban explored the school when it closed, startled to find artifacts from our era left in the abandoned building: names on chalkboards, the smell of the place unchanged. We both still have bowling balls we’d stolen from Western Lanes when it shut down—he mentioned his lucky bowling ball from Western and I responded, “I have one too! It’s outside in my car right now!”
I think the “Where did you go to high school?” question is almost always about Catholic and suburban high schools. I know characteristics of people who went to a certain Parkway school or who went to SLU High, but such jokes rarely mention the city high schools. It was neat not to get that rare-for-me little blast of shared heritage, but also to identify characteristics that mark someone as having grown up in St. Louis City and SLPS.
Relocating to Detroit was absolutely the right decision for me. I don’t know whether I’ll stay here beyond the next several years, but even if I move, it won’t be to St. Louis. But a flipside to the wonderful possibility and novelty of relocation is that you don’t have people around that you go back with. Nobody knows the things you were content to leave behind, but they also don’t know what you’re capable of and where you’re from.
I’d been vaguely meaning to get rid of that lucky bowling ball for a while, but I think I will hang on to it a little longer. I ought to take it bowling in Detroit.
POLETOWN: 30 YEARS LATER
Revisit the case with a presentation from Victor Papakhian, member of the legal team that represented the residents of Poletown.
Tuesday, March 19, 4-5pm
Wayne State University
Bernath Auditorium in the Undergraduate Library
Presented by Wayne State Student Urban Planners
Free and open to all–feel free to share with fellow Detroiters and Hamtowners, urban history geeks, curious people, etc!
I went to look up bus directions and got the following message:
“Sorry, we don’t have transit schedule data for a trip from Warren Ave W & Cass Ave, Detroit, MI 48201 to Joy Rd & Dexter Ave, Detroit, MI 48206 at the time and date you specified.
Get driving directions from Warren Ave W & Cass Ave, Detroit, MI 48201 to Joy Rd & Dexter Ave, Detroit, MI 48206.”
It looks like no one at DDOT has sent in the new April 28 schedule data to Google Maps, thereby rendering them unable to provide transit directions for Detroit. This is the second time this has happened this year. Google transit is used by many people and transit agencies to help people quickly and easily make sense of transit schedules, versus slowly piecing together PDF schedules and system maps.
I e-mailed COO Bill Nojay and he responded promptly. He says he will check into it, and that they are looking at overhauling their info tech systems.
Hopefully this basic, widely used tool will be back up soon.
When I found out at the last minute on April 5 that the Detroit Department of Transportation was holding hearings about yet another round of service cuts later that afternoon, the fact that the hearings were scheduled for Tigers Opening Day did not strike me as the actions of a government that wanted the hearings to get much media attention.
But to actually get proof of that? Ouch.
@Detroit_DOT, a very funny and clearly satirical twitter feed posing as DDOT, posted what appears to be an e-mail written by Naomi Patton, Press Secretary for the Office of Mayor Dave Bing (Also visible here). Several DDOT employees and representatives of the Mayor’s Office are included in the thread. In the thread, they discuss the fact that April 5, when they’d planned to have public hearings, is Tigers Opening Day. Naomi Patton’s alleged e-mail reads,
“I dare say it’s the perfect day to have a public hearing if you want to avoid media.
“Having covered Tigers Opening Day on more than one occasion, I can guarantee you the people who would attend this hearing ARE NOT going to Opening Day, and the media will be primarily, otherwise occupied. The people will definitely still be there and they will still be upset, but you won’t have as much media attention as a slower news day would warrant.”
In fairness, the posted e-mail thread features new DDOT CEO Ron Freeland bringing up the schedule issue as potentially problematic, stating “this is not a good day to have a public event.”
What was the result of the Mayor’s Office and DDOT’s ultimate decision to host hearings on Opening Day? Word barely got out about the hearings. Six weeks prior, the DDOT hearing I went to was well-attended and quite angry. This time around, at the same location and time of day as before, the room was virtually empty. Transit wonks outnumbered people whose primary relationship to DDOT is simply riding it.
I will note that DDOT COO and conservative talk show host Bill Nojay took the opportunity to informally answer questions from the audience moreso than at previous hearings, but it was cold comfort in light of the absence of those who will be most gravely affected by these cuts.
DDOT’s previous round of public hearings regarding service cuts took place after new schedules had been printed, in blatant violation of legal requirements that public comments be taken into consideration. At the February 24 hearing I attended, they concluded the meeting by very abruptly letting us know that they’d go ahead with the cuts as planned. They weren’t even pretending that they were going to take our comments into consideration, which is legally required.
DDOT will host a follow-up meeting this week. From their website:
“DDOT has scheduled a follow-up meeting for the public hearings that were held on Thursday, April 5, 2012. The meeting will be held Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at the DDOT Main Office – 1301 E. Warren Ave, Room 107 for 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.”
Spread the word.
DETROIT – The Detroit Department of Transportation announced this morning that it will be making a radical reduction in service, indeed a reduction of all bus service. In lieu of providing transit service, the company will hold public hearings every six weeks announcing its latest cuts.
New DDOT CEO Ron Freeland told reporters at this morning’s press conference, “We are going through tough times in Detroit, and facing difficult choices. We decided to focus on what we’re good at.”
COO Bill Nojay cut in to explain, “The buses were getting so infrequent, who were we kidding? These service reduction meetings would’ve been more frequent than the service of most of our buses within the year anyway. They are already more punctual about taking place and ending at their scheduled times, versus your average DDOT bus.”
One former rider of the late Mack bus who asked not to be named commented, “At first, I was angry. I thought I might lose my job if I couldn’t get there. Then, I realized I already lost one job to DDOT. This won’t be different.”
These sentiments were echoed by other bus riders. A Wayne County Community College student told us, “Without the buses, I won’t be able to make it to class. With the buses, I don’t make it to class.”
With the pending sale of the bus fleet, now that DDOT has gotten out of the public transportation business, the budget at the agency is expected to be in fantastic shape. The layoff of virtually all of DDOT’s staff will provide another windfall. With this money, the agency plans to keep on as many as one full time employee.
Additionally, the Department of Transportation will continue its contract with Envisurage, the consulting firm brought on to manage it through tough times. Brought on board with contracts that reward them with bonuses for saving money, the consultants were unable to be reached at press time because they were busy swimming around in dollar bills.
Nojay urged Detroiters to take a positive view of things: “This is not a service cut. Just think of it as a really long headway. It’s an infinitely long headway.”
Edited 4/10 to add: This piece is satire. It’s a joke.
My apologies to anyone I frightened. It tells one a lot about the state of things that so many of my well-informed, reasonable friends initially believed this was true.
Last night, I attended a meeting in my community about the fate of the Mark Twain Branch Library, the Detroit Public Library branch that served my area on the East Side until the branch closed in 1997. At the time of the closure, residents were told that the library needed a new roof and that it would reopen in two years. Currently, the Mark Twain Branch is famous on the Internet as an abandoned building still containing books and fixtures. After beating around the bush for quite some time, DPL representatives at this meeting stated (in response to an audience member’s direct question) that they intend to demolish the building as soon as they get the requisite permits and take care of matters with utility companies.
Other things I learned at the meeting: The Detroit Public Library targeted this community with mailers to promote a past library millage, which then passed, with the statement that the Mark Twain Branch would be renovated and reopened. There have been a number of failed efforts to make this renovation happen. DPL got a report saying that it would cost $6.9 million to renovate the library. The Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance will be building a new commercial building nearby on Gratiot and they would like DPL as a tenant. DPL may or may not keep operating the current Mark Twain Annex that serves the area currently in what was supposed to be a temporary capacity.
DPL’s maintenance crew has to board up the Mark Twain Branch two to three times a week and have dealt with some fairly blatant thieves at the site, but for some reason DPL still has equipment in the building. A lot of my neighbors seemed to want to keep the building, and in general everyone seemed to want clearer communication in the future. Karen Nagher from Preservation Wayne expressed concern as to the quality of demolition DPL will get for the $200,000 they are saying it will cost to tear down that large, solid building. The head of maintenance for DPL sidestepped questions from area residents about whether they would be recycling the materials from the building, to an extent that a simple “We’re not recycling anything” would have been more respectful and a time-saver. DPL says there is asbestos in the building, and I hope the immediate neighbors who asked them questions about it at tonight’s meeting will keep an eye out for dust when that $200,000 demolition goes down.
Another surprise that came out at tonight’s meeting was the fact that the Detroit Public Library has not considered the sale of the Mark Twain Library. This, too, came out in response to an audience member’s question. The ensuing rhetoric centered around the entirely theoretical challenge of finding an appropriate purchaser able to rehab the building for a suitable use. While vetting any potential buyer would be important, it stuck me as a funny for DPL Commissioners to fret about an owner misusing the site when DPL has misused the building so completely.
It is frustrating that years of mismanagement let a damaged roof turn into a teardown. At numerous points along the way, the current serious nuisance situation could have been avoided at much less cost. But this is where we are now: The teardown seems inevitable. Okay, the building is almost gone, that’s where we’re at.
My biggest takeaway from the meeting was that no Detroit Public Library representative present mentioned any sort of plan to prevent this from happening in the future. DPL has announced that instead of the erroneously-calculated closure of as many as 18 library branches, they will instead close around six branches this year. DPL representatives at the meeting were clear that closures will happen. Thus, DPL needs to communicate with communities individually and with Detroit as a whole what their plans are for responsible disposition of the properties or very serious mothballing (i.e. not another Mark Twain Branch). They also need to make a plan for the books and equipment that they will not move to other branches, and then they need to follow through.
DPL Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney responded to a neighbor’s question about the left-behind books by stating that nobody could use the books that were left in the Mark Twain Branch. With all due respect, that’s simply not true. An audience member promptly responded out loud that she would have used some of the books. Thinking in practical terms, there are a bevy of organizations, local and national, which are glad to take books before they get covered in plaster dust, and this was much more than a handful of books left behind. If it’s too much work to contact a few separate organizations, wonderfully green Better World Books will pay shipping for book donations and then resell or recycle the books themselves. One large library where I worked in the past did a great deal of deaccessioning due to a lack of offsite storage, and Better World even provided numerous boxes for us to ship the books in for free on a regular basis. All we had to do was put the books into the boxes and tape on shipping labels. Heck, just a well-flyered and -bannered free book giveaway in the neighborhood would be better than another locking-up of so many books in a defunct building–this is Detroit and people are hungry for knowledge. In a city where the mismanagement of public dollars and moreover the perception thereof are a huge problem, wasting resources to this serious a degree and in such a visually arresting manner is not a PR slip that DPL should repeat.
One Mark Twain Branch has been a real loss. We don’t need six more. What has happened with the Mark Twain Branch has been a shame, but the Detroit Public Library can commit to taking a course of action with its coming closures that prevents this from happening again. Here’s hoping.
You’ve likely heard the statistic that Detroit’s functional illiteracy rate is nearly fifty percent, but it bears repeating. At the store where I worked last year, I got used to politely, patiently pointing out every last example of a product because a customer couldn’t read the package or the price. These customers could not distinguish between different varieties of a product because they couldn’t read the information on the box. Sometimes, they could not even find the thing they were looking for because so many toiletries are just liquid in text-covered bottles.
I had thought before about how an inability to read would make finding work hard, how it would make it pretty much impossible to vote, big things like that, but not until then had I considered the effect it can have on a person’s everyday ability to function. Several days ago when I hung out with a friend, she had just come from a cafe where the man in front of her was asking so many questions, she realized he probably couldn’t read the menu.
I wrote recently about the closure of the public library in relatively wealthy Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I wrote about how libraries have been proven again and again to have an outstanding return on investment, returning to their communities manyfold the number of dollars invested in them. I wrote, too, about how once a library is closed, the more time passes, the more it will cost to reopen the library. A lot of money is tied up in a library in the form of physical infrastructure, books, and equipment, to say nothing of the years of human effort embodied there, and closure throws these things into the rubbish bin. As time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the library branch can ever be opened again.
As much as I believe Troy needs its library, when I think about this loss coming to Detroit, I can barely make sense of it. Every city needs libraries, but a city like Detroit…. A source of free information and entertainment, a solid set of bootstraps, even a place to go during the day, these things are air and water here. They are absolutely necessary. Removing this vital source of self-improvement and access to employment resources is a hard slap in the face for a city with an unemployment rate estimated anywhere from 30 to 50%. Yes, there will still be some libraries, but Detroit is also a vast city where about one in three people lack cars and the public transit system plainly sucks. A lot of the people who need libraries the most don’t necessarily have the mobility to regularly travel beyond their neighborhoods.
If these DPL branches end up crumbling, scrapped, wide open, and full of decaying books, they would not be the first DPL branches to do so. We don’t have to speculate, because DPL’s record on responsible disposition of its resources–finding new homes for books and on mothballing and/or selling the building–is right there in front of our eyes. I hope they will do better with this round of closures, although no closures would be better.
On a personal note, part of the big, shiny daydream that convinced me to pack up my life and move to this city was the thought that I wanted to work in a Detroit Public Library branch someday, doing my little part to put a dent in the city’s illiteracy rate. I have worked in a city public library with at-risk youth, and I know what that entails, and I love it.
I feel guilty even writing this down knowing that some of my favorite Detroiters and that many curious-about-Detroit people are going to read it, but the news of these cuts makes it a lot harder for me to imagine my future here. It’s not just the evaporation of so many jobs, but a significant blow to my line of work and to library workers in this region, period. When I first read the article, the image that popped into my head was of driving around my neighborhood and finding billboards reading I’D TURN BACK IF I WERE YOU. I could blow that sentiment up and talk about employment and opportunity networks and trying to stem brain drain, but you know what? The biggest loss here isn’t my silly white hipster self being more likely to move away or to keep working in low-wage retail after getting my degree. The big loss here is for those Detroiters who don’t have any other place to go or to take their kids.
And hey: Closing libraries serves, in its way, to reinforce the gap between educated me and the most desperate people in my city. Rather than being able to use my knowledge and skills to help them acquire knowledge and skills, I am that much more likely to take my education elsewhere. I am more likely to be gone, and they’re more likely to be stuck.
To all actors in the Detroit Public Library budget situation, whether you feel complicit in creating the current crisis or not, please get it together and do everything you can to fix this. You know this is real, and that it is a decision not easily taken back. This city goes daily without many of the bare minimum services and dignities needed for a municipality to function, but that doesn’t mean we should add this one to the list. In fact, we need our libraries precisely because we have virtually nothing else. Please, stop as many of these library closures as you can. Don’t cut Detroit’s bootstraps.
…because Troy has a 100% literacy rate, no poverty, no one without a computer, and everyone has infinite money to go on Amazon. Right?
Jeff Wattrick has the story and commentary here: Troy Library will close April 30, or Troy is your new Highland Park.
As a future librarian, I of course have to be painfully literal and point out that Highland Park, despite the many serious problems it faces, is at least trying to reopen its library. They see the mistake that they made. Troy apparently doesn’t want to learn from it.
It appears that eliminating the library will cut $1.7 million from Troy’s budget. But how much does Troy “save” by discarding millions of dollars worth of books, equipment, and human work accumulated over the years, hm?
Does anybody know what is going to happen to the books? Are they going to other area libraries, or will they just be abandoned in place like those of the East St. Louis Public Library (photo), DPL’s Mark Twain Branch, and countless DPS libraries and facilities? I know, we metro Detroiters have seen images of abandoned books before. I know Troy is not Detroit, but images of abandoned books are relevant here in that the longer the library is closed, the harder and more expensive it will be for Troy to have a library again. Right now, Troy, your city has a viable library that only needs $1.7 million to stay open. How many years of having the library closed will it take for that number to double? For it to multiply tenfold? Disseminate the books and you might never feasibly be able to afford a library again.
Is there no option on the table to operate at reduced hours? I ask this, but a quote in Wattrick’s article notes that Troy Councilman Martin Howrylak found $1.7 million of “unusued expenditures” in the budget that could be used to fund the library, but Mayor Louise Schilling and other members of the City Council turned down a resolution to discuss it. Money is tight, to be sure, but it does not sound like money is the only issue here. (This article hints at more political squabbling.)
I almost hate to put the idea out there, but the government of Troy could have a yard sale and get rid of the books for pennies on the dollar, making sure this is as fiscally wasteful as possible. The community’s literacy will be stunted for years across the age and income spectrum, people without ‘net access will have no place to seriously job search, kids whose parents aren’t tuned in to reading and schoolwork won’t have that important extra source of help and mentoring, AND they’ll do away with one of the last indoor public spaces a lot of communities have…. But they could narrow this year’s budget gap by like ten whole dollars! For three years!
Countless studies a show that a dollar invested in a public library comes back to the community manyfold. Here are just a few:
Anecdotally, too, I have heard colleagues working in libraries across the country speak of being busier and of watching the numbers of new library card applications increase as the economy has struggled in the last few years. This begs the question: If Troy is really hurting fiscally, doesn’t that mean it needs its library? A community in Southeast Michigan, of all places, should not scoff at the last place that many people are able to access employment resources.
Of course, Mayor Schilling and certain Councilmembers are not the only ones who voted against the library. A November 2010 vote on a tax increase to keep the library open was voted down.
Does a rising tide not lift all boats in largely affluent Troy? I’m sure there are those in the community who are content to buy or pirate books and media, and to keep it for themselves in their private households, public good be damned. And yes, there is Google, but arguments about information quality and the value of information specialists aside, not everyone has Internet access at home. Your neighbor who now can’t use the library to find a job just might end up getting foreclosed upon, and that empty house is gonna be awesome for your property values. More teens will be without a safe non-home hangout and homework help, and more seniors will be stuck at home more of the time. Want to read or watch some really obscure title you can’t find on the Internet or to do some serious research? Too bad, Interlibrary Loan and newspaper databases are out of the question now.
The people this will hurt the most are those without computers at their jobs and without institutional (i.e. school) access to information–yep, nice ‘n classist. According to this article, Troy residents who want library access will have to buy a card from a nearby community, the cost of which starts at $75. Not everyone can afford to do that. This is a big step towards greater information access inequality in the area.
I don’t think Troy is going to collapse tomorrow just because they’re closing the library, but I do think this measure is pennywise and pound foolish.
The good librarian side of me is sad for the residents of Troy and frightened that this is even being considered somewhere in my region. But let’s be honest, my bad librarian side is gettin’ parochial: You wanna close your library, Troy? Go ahead–at least that’s one thing we still have in Detroit.