Don’t Send in the Clowns

According to Mayor Anthony Williams, residents are “afraid of building a new library.” This is a bizarre, and essentially unserious, argument in favor of his plan for a new main library. It would be accurate, however, to say that citizens are afraid of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library, because of the frightening state into which it has fallen — a condition for which Mayor Williams, as chief city caretaker, is ultimately responsible.

In the seven and a half years he has been in office, Williams has done nothing — not a thing — to improve the public library system of the District of Columbia.

A year and a half ago, he allowed four libraries to be closed for rebuilding with no plans

for interim services (children in these areas are facing the second summer without access to a neighborhood library). Then, he allowed his appointed Board of Library Trustees to cancel the publicly approved plans for rebuilding them. The Mayor’s net effect on the library system, after seven and a half years in office, is a negative. DCPL is down by four.

Having demonstrated a complete lack of interest in improving the library system, Mayor Williams now asks to be given permission to build a new central library.

Building the main library as planned by the Mayor would be a step backward to a smaller facility, in an inferior location, sandwiched into a mixed use complex, funded by leasing air rights. And apparently the Mayor and Trustees don’t feel that learning is its own reward; the new library they envision will be enhanced with jugglers and restaurants and, of course, shopping.

A library is a storehouse of the treasures of civilization, and thus on its own merits a highly diverting place. Let’s not send in the clowns.

Perhaps, like most citizens of D.C., the mayor probably doesn’t use the library. Those who have the option travel to the very adequate libraries maintained by tax dollars of surrounding jurisdictions such as Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties. Or they use the Internet in the comfort of their homes, offices or local cafes.

Fifty years ago, the city fathers conceived of a new central library as an engine of economic revitalization. Congress appropriated money specifically for a central library (raising the question of whether we are even legally able to move MLK). The architect was renowned Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe, known for his maxim, “God is in the details.” Yet, as is the way with city fathers, the details were shortchanged from the beginning in favor of the bottom line. Banks of elevators were cut, the marble facing was deleted, a fifth floor never built. Even so, the library opened to accolades.

Over the 40 years since MLK opened, and while the city around it gradually came back to life, the library was left to deteriorate, its original vision compromised from the outset.

What reason is there to believe that a new library will fare any differently?

Indeed, the area around MLK has prospered. Our pioneering iconic building

is now perfectly located to provide maximum enrichment to the life of the city. Now is the time to thoroughly renovate the building to fulfill the vision of the architect, to honor the legacy of Dr. King and to show our children what it means to take care of things.

As deteriorated as it undeniably is, the claims that MLK is unsalvageable and terminally sick are false. A through renovation of MLK, addressing the problems patrons and librarians have identified over forty years of use, was in fact proposed six years ago by the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects. Since it was proposed in 2000, there have been many requests from Library Trustees, the Committee of 100 and ordinary library-going citizens to have this study “costed-out.” Mayor Williams has steadfastly refused.

Perhaps the mayor’s greatest failure in terms of the library was the rejection of this study.

Everyone wants a better library. Many disagree with the mayor about the best way to get one. The community has been kept out of the process of determining what exactly would make a better library and thus they have many questions about the advisability of what the Mayor has planned.

After nearly eight years of his neglect, Mayor Williams simply has no standing when it comes to the library. His legislation should be dismissed out of hand.

Mayor Williams Plays the Palace

Mayor Anthony Williams published an op ed in the Washington Post on June 13 arguing that the District needs a new Library at the Downtown Convention Center site.

The Mayor’s op ed is full of half truths and outright misrepresentations. He says, for example, that the Mies van der Rohe building has “little architectural significance.” Tell that to the Committee of 100 on the Federal City that recently testified that “MLK is a great example of austere but elegant ‘International School’ architecture in a city largely filled with neo-classical and baroque buildings.”

The Mayor complains about the “awful conditions of the current Martin Luther King Jr. Library” when he produced those very conditions by failing to maintain the building. Indeed, in 2003, the Mayor actually recommended a cut of one million dollars to the Library’s operating budget, when he had already pared it to the bone in previous years.

We thought then, and still think, that the Mayor had cooked up a real estate deal involving this very well-situated and valuable property, and was simply trying to evict the present tenants with time honored slumlord tactics – hasten the decay of the building by refusing maintenance, and evict the tenants to protect them from unsafe conditions.

The Mayor also cites the Blue Ribbon Task Force as though it is a fount of authority on the issue, when the Task was flatly told (before their work even started) that the decision to build a new Library had already been made. Subsequently, the Mayor permitted no one to investigate or assess any alternatives, and extended that policy to the so-called “listenings” in which any citizen who raised the possibility of rehabbing MLK was silenced.

Thus, the decision to build a new Library has very little to do with producing a warm, welcoming, educationally useful Library, and is very much more a real estate deal packaged and planned at least two years ago. That there has been no needs assessment done- ever – points to the bankrupt rationale for building an entirely new Library.

The Mayor claims that he wants a “sunny and airy” new Library “filled with the latest technology,” and we agree that this is indeed desirable. However, the plan to rehabilitate the MLK that we have recently unearthed (following this entry) made by architect Kent Cooper, fulfills all of the requirements for an “airy” library “filled with the latest technology” and at a cost that would come at thirty percent less than that of building an entirely new Library.

This would represent a savings amounting to at least 60 million dollars (depending on the true costs of building new), and could be applied to eliminating the extraordinarily high adult illiteracy rate in the District, that, if we add teens and children, engulfs 62 percent of the District’s population. The costs to the District of this high rate of illiteracy are incalculable, but surely the mayor would want that 60 million dollar savings to be applied to eliminating this shocking social problem, rather than building a new Downtown Library for the few who would need or use it.

A new Library Downtown, however, will not provide resources to people who have these needs, most of whom go to their neighborhood libraries for help.

Meanwhile, the DC Library Renaissance Project has been pressing the Library Trustees for two years to provide such programs, but has been ignored by Trustees more interested in an expensive and needless Library Palace, rather than serving those whose voices have been muted or stilled for lack of local Library service, and who are denied the literacy that would enable them to speak for themselves.