Detroit and Cleveland – Struggling Cities with Great Libraries

Worst temp ever, Detroit, MI

Worst temp ever, Detroit, MI

7/21/11 – Understandably, we had to go through several layers of security to be able to photograph in the Main Library in Detroit. However, it was worth it. The library was built when Detroit had the intention of being a world class city. The sudden end of that dream had left a mostly devastated city with a top notch library. According to an article in Huntington Post 50% of Detroit’s population is functionally illiterate. Miles and miles of the city are in ruins. It is the poorest city in the U.S. and one of the most dangerous in the world. Librarian Jeanne Salatheiel took me on a quick tour that brought the library to life. The grand hallways, the beautiful murals, the great collections collectively showed a portrait from another era. Today was the highest recorded temperature for any July 21st in the history of Detroit. Although the library had AC it was hot, even inside. I spent several happily hours photographing this great institution. We then plunged in to the record-breaking heat and humidity. We photographed four branch libraries throughout Detroit. Two were abandoned and two were functioning. Every library in Detroit had an armed security guard that greeted us as we entered. The Benjamin Franklin branch library was a refuge from the brutal heat and violence outside. Not surprisingly, it was filled to capacity. I spent an hour carefully photographing this tough but amazing place. One of the abandoned libraries was located next to a car wash. The owner of the car wash came out and explained that after the library closed it was a methadone clinic for many years before being abandoned. We headed back to our hostel in Windsor, Canada. We needed to escape the heat and chaos. We spent many hours working on our blogs and vlogs. Windsor surprised us for it normalcy compared to the insanity of Detroit. The two cities are only separated by the Detroit River but Windsor felt relaxed and European compared to where we had been.

7/22/11 – After doing a quick tour of Detroit’s magnificent downtown core we continued to photograph branch libraries. It was a good way of seeing a wide range of Detroit and we were amazed at the scale of the devastation. The Mark Twain branch library had been temporarily housed in the basement of a church for the last seven years. Today was slightly cooler than yesterday but the crowded library was stifling. The AC had been broken for the last hew weeks during this record heat wave so large fans moved the air around the library. We drove to the beautiful but now ruined and abandoned original Mark Twain branch. Taken together the two will tell an interesting part of libraries in Detroit.

We sadly said good by to Nick after dropping him off at his grandfather’s house outside of Detroit. Later, I photographed the beautiful library in Howell, MI. It is located in what used to be the heart of the Michigan Militia Movement. The downtown had been gentrified. We end our day in East Lansing where we stayed with the Amber family. Jake is Walker’s roommate in New York. Ben and Rachel have become new friends for us and we share a lot in common including politics.

7/23/11 – We drove east for four hours stopping only to photograph a library in Norwalk, OH. We arrived at 3 PM in Cleveland and drove immediately to the Main Library downtown. Librarian Michael Ruffing took me on a wonderfully thorough tour of the seven floors of the new and old parts of this amazing library. I was sweating carrying my 4X5 camera and tripod going up and down narrow staircases and even going to roof. His enthusiasm again brought the place alive. He turned me loose to spend the next 2 1/2 hours feeling like a kid in a candy store. Cleveland’s library is one of the best so far. The quality of the library suggests a wealthier Cleveland in the past. It has suffered through hard times losing 2/3 of its population over the last 50 years. The flight of manufacturing jobs had hurt a lot of people here. However, Walker and I really liked the city and wish it well.



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5 responses to “Detroit and Cleveland – Struggling Cities with Great Libraries

  1. Jeanie

    Just found your site – very cool project! I live an hour outside of Detroit and go there frequently for sporting events, cultural activities and some great food. In fact, in one month I will begin attending the university in the city for a degree in library science!
    There’s a lot of negative press out there about Detroit, but a lot of people are invested in it’s rebirth as a city. I’m a little concerned with statements like “The Benjamin Franklin branch library was a refuge from the brutal heat and violence outside” – did you actually witness any violence outside? I would have loved to hear more about the people that were in the libraries (that were open and being used as such) – what were they doing there? Reading? Using other resources? I think that would have been a great story.
    Thanks for doing this project – I’m really amazed by all that I’m learning about the history of libraries and looking at your amazing photos. Keep traveling! đŸ™‚

  2. Kathleen Marcaccio

    Wish I had come across this site sooner and known that you would be coming through our city. I would have enjoyed meeting up with you! I lead tours in Detroit’s Cultural Center for Preservation Wayne and, as such, take groups through the main Detroit Public Library, which is an absolute treasure trove of art and architecture by the best available when the Library was built 1917-1921. The ceiling photo you posted is my favorite ceiling in the building and is inspired by Doges Palace in Venice.

    Glad you came through the area, but wish you had more time to get acquainted with us so that you could understand some of what Detroit has experienced and is going through today. Yes, there is blight and despair for sure, but there is so much going on to rebuild and revitalize Detroit that we have hope that it can indeed be great again!! FYI…the “Destroyed building” was the original Cass Technical High School built in 1917 and it is currently being demolished; it was replaced by the new Cass Tech located one block north in 2005.

    Good luck with the rest of your trip and with the follow-up project!!!

  3. Brad

    Did you see Cleveland’s collection of chess and checkers literature? The world’s largest on public display!

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