This Flicker Photo essay by Brandon Davis shows how the combined impact of municipal corruption, fiscal incompetence, and superstitious belief in junk science actually resulted in the neglect and finally the abandonment and demolition of a major branch library in Detroit, complete with shelves and books. Nobody could enter the place to salvage anything. The black mold bogey and the asbestos monster might eat them.
The symbolism of all this, the reverse course in development and progress, the neglect and abandonment of the achievements of past Americans, the betrayal of their constituents by the crooks and looters in Detroit’s city government, all capped by reliance on wild-eyed phobias promoted by politicized pseudo-science to justify the final betrayal.
The Mark Twain branch library on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Seneca Street in Detroit is a study in physical and cultural decay. …
Twain was Detroit’s third regional library, (along with Parkman and Monteith), designed to be larger than a neighborhood library. Regional branches offered a wider selection of books and periodicals in an informal “clubhouse” environment, and could host public events, such as plays and concerts. Construction on the Twain branch finished in early 1940, and the library opened its doors to the public on February 22nd. The actual dedication of the library took place two months later, in a ceremony attended by city officials, religious leaders, and members of the business community. Over 20,000 books were on the shelves for opening day, watched over by head librarian Ethel Kellow.
For many years, the Twain branch was the social hub of the northeast side of Detroit. Numerous newspaper clippings from the 1940’s and 50’s note a wide variety of events hosted at the library, including a series of lectures on “Problems of Working Girls” held by Miss M. Sharpe, head of the personnel department of the Detroit Edison Co., Boy Scout troop meetings, and the playing of recorded symphonies conducted by Toscanini, Stokowski, and Iturbi for the Girls Music Club program. Well into the 1970’s and 80’s, Twain branch offered a haven for children and residents as the neighborhood around the library started to decline.
The Detroit Public Library started to run into financial problems in the early 1980’s, closing several branches and deferring maintenance on others. In the summer of 1990, several branches, including Twain, were closed due to significant shortfalls. A grant from the State of Michigan reopened Twain in September for two days a week, but a precedent had been set.
In 1996 or 97, long-delayed work began on repairing the roof of the Twain branch, which was leaking water. The scope of the repairs needed increased greatly as contractors found more damage than expected, including toxic asbestos and structural problems. In 1997, the library commission decided to replace the entire roof, and temporarily closed the Twain branch.
What had started off as small repairs grew into a large project that put the library out of service for the foreseeable future. As planning dragged on, residents complained about the lack of library services in the area. To address their concerns, a temporary “annex” for the Mark Twain branch was set up in the basement of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist on Iroquois Street in 1998. About half of the books were moved from the old building to the annex branch, along with computers and other equipment.
Work on the old Twain branch stalled in 1999, as the Detroit Public Library faced another financial crisis. With many of its branch buildings approaching 50 years of age or more, the library estimated that over $100 million dollars in repairs were needed across the city. A millage campaign to fund operations and repairs passed in 2000, and shortly afterwards, the library announced that it would be spending $4 million dollars to repair and reopen three branches, including Mark Twain.
Progress on the Twain branch remained minimal though, even as the library commission claimed that work was going forward. Conditions at Twain were so hazardous that one contractor refused to enter the building to survey it in 2000. A follow up report on the millage by The Detroit News in August of 2002 stated that work was ongoing at the Twain branch, though no details were offered. In 2004 the library started to campaign for a renewal of the 2000 millage. A marketing brochure sent out to residents promoting the renewal featured a “report card” with a list of accomplishments from 2000, including the reopening of two branches (Richard and Skillman), “with the reopening of the Campbell and Mark Twain branches in the works.” Another item highlighted new roofs at 17 branches, “including Mark Twain branch.” No work appears to have been done, as by 2007 there were large holes in the roof over the general circulation room. Other letters sent out to residents in the neighborhood by the Detroit Public Library led them to believe that the millage would provide funds to reopen the Twain branch. The millage passed, but minimal work was carried out.
In 2003 and 2006 the library commission carried out surveys of the Twain branch, both time finding that the damage had grown more extensive and that it would cost more money to repair the building. Open holes in the roof were letting in water, leading to an infestation of black mold that crept across the walls and into the books that had been left behind. Despite promises given to the community and specific wording in the 2000 and 2004 millages that funds raised would be used to repair the library, little was being done to stabilize, much less improve the Twain branch.
The first public sign that saving Twain was a lost cause came in 2008, when negotiations between the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance were opened to move the Mark Twain annex into a new mixed-use development that the Alliance was planning on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Rohns Street. It was estimated that build-out for a new branch inside the development would cost about $1.5 million, less than the cost of renovating. By 2009 the old Twain branch was in visible decline, with broken windows and holes in the roof. When residents challenged members of the library commission at a December 15th meeting on why the bond money had not been spent restoring the library, a representative claimed “that the millage proposal pledge was to find a library solution,” sidestepping the issue. Despite ongoing talks with the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, residents were assured that no decision had been made regarding the future of the branch.
With its shelves of decaying books, Twain became a very visible symbol of mismanagement and decay in the media. Questions of why so many books and supplies had been left behind to molder dogged the Detroit Public Library, as images of the library featured heavily in news stories about the city. In May of 2011, an RFP for the demolition of the library was issued and discussed at a June 21st meeting. One of the commissioners raised concerns about items that had been left behind. According to the minutes, “Ms. Machie explained, back in 1997 when the building was decommissioned, everything was taken out, reassigned, or sold at a garage/book sale that was of any value. Branch librarians reviewed and selected books and were able to add to their book inventory. Ms. Machie said entering the building to retrieve materials would be hazardousâ€¦”
The contract to demolish Mark Twain library was awarded to Adamo Demolition in July of 2011 for just under $200,000. It did not include any provision for salvage of books or materials. Asbestos abatement began in September, and the building was gutted within a few weeks. Structural demolition of the building lasted into October. After work was finished and the demolition crew had left for the day, scavengers would pick through the piles of debris for bits of metal pipe and wiring. Curious onlookers would sneak under the fence to gaze at what was left of the building, or to take a brick for a souvenir.
Hat tip to Madame Scherzo.