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Throughout Detroit there are still little libraries full of books that half the residents can't even read.A typical one is the Chandler Park Branch Library, on Harper near Dickerson Street on the city's east side, one of 23 branches of Detroit's public library system currently open. Built in 1957, it's a cozy tri-level space with a small sampling of books from across the Dewey classification spectrum.
Its walls feature portraits of black historical figures and artwork from local children, and its collection has an emphasis on black authors. A tall, uniformed security guard stands at the door, and video cameras watch from behind mirrors.
Some people come here just to sit and look at the pictures in magazines. Others, often homeless, come only to spend a whole afternoon here, doing nothing. "You can always just get you a book and put it in front of you and just stay the day," says 63-year-old Marjorie McDowell, a soft-voiced clerical assistant.
Most people, though, come only to use the computers. "You get [everyone from] people who are proficient on the computer to people who have never been on a computer," says librarian Mary Masasabi, 50. "They say, 'This is my first time.' They don't know how to hold a mouse." Adults generally use them to brush up résumés or apply for jobs; kids come to stream music, play games, or surf the Internet.
With the allure of free computer use, books take a back seat. "The only time that people around here will check out something is if the school has a project," McDowell says with disfavor. "It's like if they see a sign on the door that says 'Computers out of order' they turn around. It's not like they come here and say 'I'm gonna read a book since the computers aren't working.' They don't do that. Except the people that want urban fiction — I'm telling you, they take out 10, 12, 15 books at a time."
The library's most frequently borrowed books are collectively referred to as "urban fiction," featuring raw stories written in slang and vernacular, dealing with inner-city issues and street life. Grouped in a sunken little reading area, they're wildly popular among patrons here.
"It's life that imitates their community," says branch manager Stacy Brooks, 45. "There's the poverty, the unemployment, the drug use, sometimes there's prostitution, there's the single mom trying to raise her kids, doing whatever she has to do. And it's relatable. Sometimes they're cautionary tales, and sometimes they're not. They come in and check them out by the armful, and then they're back in like a week or so. They pass them around to their friends, and they bring them back because they want more."
Despite the coarse storylines, Brooks figures it's better that patrons are reading these books rather than no books at all.
"There is that debate, that urban books shouldn't be in a library, they're not real literature," she says. "But they're the only thing that some people are reading, and then hopefully the goal is to migrate them to other literature. They'll come in and say, 'I'm tired of reading the same story' and so then you have the opportunity to show them other authors that they may not have heard of before, that they wouldn't even have thought of before, so you use that as an opportunity to move them along."
Others, however, think they're a bad influence not worth the increased readership they generate. "We have these books that these kids check out that are strictly for adults, but the kids check them out," McDowell says. "They got names like Bitch and Whore — that rubs me just the wrong way, you know? To me these books are just softcore porn."
McDowell spent a career at Michigan Bell before retiring. She came here a few years ago because she liked going to the library and figured it would be fun to work there. She has a grandmotherly perspective on urban fiction. "I would ask some of these kids, 'How old are you?' when they would be checking them out and they were like 12. And I'll talk to the library and stuff and they'll be like, 'Oh there's nothing we can do about it; it's a parent thing,' but there has to be something we can do about it. There has to be."
Despite a half-century at this location, sometimes visitors are utterly unfamiliar with the concept of borrowing books and think it's a free-for-all. "They don't quite understand how libraries function," Masasabi says. "They get them free, but there's a but — we give it to you, but you have to bring it back. They don't realize that until it's too late, then they either just drop out and not come to the library again or they have to come and pay the fee."
Whether it's unfamiliarity with protocol or due to sticky fingers, some titles are so in demand they aren't returned. "We do have a problem with some of our more popular books," Masasabi says. "When you look them up you're going to find that, system-wide, the rate of loss is very, very high." The most filched title in recent memory, the staff says, is The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah, considered a classic in the urban literature genre. It's about a teenager whose mother is shot and whose drug-dealing father goes to prison. The subject matter, as Brooks notes, resonates with readers on this side of town.
Now the old branch is literally splitting in two, with a large crack forming in the middle of a wall near the employee entrance at the side. The Edsel Ford Freeway was built so close to it years ago that the ground under its foundation is slipping, and half of the library is slowly dropping down the embankment, fitting symbolism in a city where — according to the Detroit Literacy Coalition — half its residents are functionally illiterate.
Worse, a nearby water main burst last February, flooding the library, the homes around it and the freeway down below. The branch closed for several months for repairs. The city's looking into relocating the branch to a new building, says A.J. Funchess, assistant marketing director with the DPL. "It's safe right now, though," he says.
Despite the library's normally quiet atmosphere, the staff sees lively moments. There's the guy who once ran in, claimed someone was chasing him, went to the second floor, jumped out the window and ran onto the freeway to hitchhike. "I believe something was wrong with him," 38-year-old clerk Yvette Williams says politely. Then there's the man who brought a pistol in, and the police had to come. "They came in here like SWAT from a movie," McDowell notes. Turns out it was a BB gun.
But otherwise the library remains a quiet sanctuary in a rough neighborhood. Aside from the occasionally loud or deranged patron, most people here still instinctively speak in hushed tones, and come here to better themselves in some way. Besides books, the library offers free computer classes, literacy programs, arts activities, science projects and story time for toddlers.
On a recent snowy afternoon, Masasabi led a crafts program in the upstairs meeting room, where kids got to decorate and take home little keepsake boxes using seashells and glue provided free by the library. Several children and their moms sat side by side at a long table, engrossed in their work, consulting each other in whispers, comparing their creations. Programs like this offer these moms and their kids the place and the means to spend quality time together in a poor neighborhood where few other such options exist.
"This is like really the only thing in the area for our young people, even for our adult customers," Masasabi says. One woman from the area even brought the staff baked goods to celebrate the library's reopening after the flood. "People are very appreciative. They're happy that we're here."
Detroitblogger John scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.