When it opened in 1921, the Main Library was a national showplace, its artistic features meticulously described in a 37-page booklet that boasted of a white Vermont marble façade, sculpted bronze doors and paintings by the nation's most renowned muralist.
Today's library critics argue that a new $2.3 million renovation — equal to one month's payroll for the Main Library — is a disgrace that ill-serves a cash-strapped system on the verge of closing up to 18 of 23 neighborhood branches and laying off workers.
Carping about wasteful spending is a nonstop chorus of civic life. Even in 1921, library critics abounded. But if the Detroit Public Library's renovation is particularly ill-timed, even a child — perhaps especially a child — can tell you that it is also needed and overdue.
If you don't believe me, ask Braden Smith, 13, and his friends Trayvon Trammer, 14, and Lawrence Gooden, 14. They go to school across the street and frequently visit the library on Woodward Avenue.
But until Tuesday, when we met by happenstance outside the Vermont marble entrance, they were underwhelmed by the building.
"It's kind of an old place," Braden said. "And it can be creepy when you walk up the stairs. It's spooky."
The three eighth-graders are denizens of Detroit's cultural center, students in the new Detroit Preparatory Science and Math Middle School attached to the Detroit Science Center, just behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. As eighth-graders in Midtown, they're amid an area that's become the core of the city's economic and cultural future.
And while they hang out at the Main Library, they compare it unfavorably with suburban libraries. The library is 90 years old, and its "new" south and north wings are almost 50.
"It's kind of outdated," Trayvon said.
But when the four of us walked into the renovated space — with its gleaming floors and contemporary lighting — they looked momentarily stunned.
What did they think?
"It's a great place to work," Lawrence said. "It makes you want to work because of the environment you're in. This is what a young, average kid wants in a library."
They admired the task chairs, the new lighting and the spaciousness of the room. "If they keep adding areas like this," said Trayvon, "it will be a really good place to go."
The library and its commission haven't handled the renovation with any public relations savvy.
"Looking back, we could have done many things differently," said A.J. Funchess, the library spokesman.
Stronger leaders might have worked to locate private funding, just as the 1921 builders thanked Andrew Carnegie for $750,000 of help. That would have been smart.
In the short term, it's easy to be outraged by $1,100 chairs or waste containers or, perhaps, by any new purchases, well-designed or not.
But there are no easy spending choices in Detroit, because every dollar spent is one that's needed just as much somewhere else.
A decade ago, another critical chorus was focused on the huge expenditure undertaken by a Wayne County executive to rebuild Detroit's decrepit airport.
The $1.2 billion terminal was deemed unaffordable, ridiculous, the object of derision. But that costly, controversial airport terminal is today's triumph, a source of regional pride and development dollars.
The Main Library isn't any old place: It's always functioned as a symbol of the city's aspirations, designed to inspire learning, thinking and pride. Even a smaller, more efficient city can help launch dreams.
On Tuesday, I watched three boys peer into the library's new sleek, contemporary space, with its gleaming computers and rolling desk chairs. As Trayvon plopped into a thousand-buck lounge chair, he proclaimed it "comfortable" and surveyed a wing as eye-catching as any suburban library.
He grinned, and I'm taking the long view: Cheap at the price.
firstname.lastname@example.org(313) 222-2032 Laura Berman's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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