Library shuttering deals a devastating blow to one Detroit community

Dec 21, 2011

Four branches of the Detroit Public Library system will shut their doors for good this week.

Library officials say it’s just a reflection of fiscal reality. But that’s cold comfort to Detroiters who will lose their neighborhood branches.

One of those branches is the Monteith library, on the city’s far east side. Residents there say their library is one of the last community institutions they have left—and shuttering it will be a devastating blow.

“A safe haven” for kids                                                                  

The Monteith library looks more like a church than a library.

Its stone exterior and stained glass window panels evoke a Gothic cathedral. Inside, you can spot lots of the little ornate details that you find so often in 1920s Detroit architecture.

When Monteith opened in 1926, it served a thriving east side neighborhood that was assimilating a diverse array of immigrant families. But the neighborhood slowly began to empty out in the mid-century—a process of decay that’s only accelerated ever since. Now, the Monteith library is remarkable not only because it’s a beautiful building, but a beautiful building in one of the city’s most devastated communities.

“It’s like the Alamo, the last thing standing,” says Jay Henderson, who’s with the group Friends of the Monteith Library.

 “And if we don’t win this one, what else is there? The community center is gone, lots of the houses is gone, but this library still stands tall.”

Henderson says the library is far “more than a building” in this community—it’s a “refuge” and a “safe haven,” especially for kids.

A space for community

Monteith’s spacious upstairs used to be the children’s room. Today, the space hosts a number of community activities. The East Side Tutoring program helps kids with their homework. And twice a week, mats get rolled out on the floor for martial arts practice.

On a recent weekend afternoon, Sensei Kevin Bolton and two teenage black belts put about a dozen younger kids through their paces in a karate class.

Ivy Hadley brings her three kids from across town for the free classes. She’s furious that these activities will be displaced—and maybe cancelled—when the library closes.

“How are the kids gonna stay out of trouble when you’re taking things from them?” asks Hadley, visibly frustrated. “You gotta occupy their minds, you know? I try my best to occupy the minds of my kids, so they stay out of trouble.”

Leroy Lewis, a high school senior who grew up in the neighborhood, says he used Monteith for just that purpose.

 “I would come use the computers for school projects,” Lewis says. “I would check out books, magazines…when I was bored or whatever, I would read a lot.”

Downstairs, Monteith hums with quiet activity. The computer terminals are almost all occupied, something staff members say is typical.  For many people in impoverished neighborhoods like this one, the library is the only place where many can get access to a computer.

But like in all libraries, there are the folks who just like to come here and read. And it’s easy to see why people would like doing that in this stately old library.

Closing would be “dismal”

While the building IS old, Monteith looks like it’s in good shape. That’s partly because the Junior League of Detroit has made some major investments in the building. It did a lot of restoration work, and bought the library new computers and furniture.

Friends of the Monteith’s Jay Henderson thinks that’s another good reason to keep the library open. “If you have a group willing to make that kind of commitment, why would you take it away?” he says. “Unless there’s some agenda that we don’t know [about].”

But Detroit library officials say there’s no agenda—just a $9.2 million budget gap that will only keep growing as revenues keep declining. The Richard, Mark Twain and Lincoln branches are also slated to close this week.

This week, library backers, including Friends of the Monteith, went to a Library Commission meeting and pleaded for a reprieve to rustle up more funds to keep the building open.

Library Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch thinks those efforts are well-intentioned, but come too late.

“We cannot operate based upon maybes right now,” Kinloch says. “The city of Detroit, and particularly the library’s finances, are flying off of a cliff. So we have to make sound business decisions.”

Kinloch and the Commission stood firm, and for now, plans are for the doors to close forever. The immediate plans for the buildings are to board them up. The contents will be inventoried, and distributed to surrounding schools and libraries over the next few months.

And that’s crushing to people like Davina Brooks, who often brings her eight children to Monteith.

“If they turn their backs on it…there’s nothing else,” says Brooks. “That’s the last thing. The grocery stores have closed, the schools have closed…where are they to go?”

Brooks says it will be “dismal” to see the beautiful, historic building her kids have come to know as a window on the world to become “just another boarded up, vacant building in Detroit.”