Library in limbo 

A sense of melancholy hangs in the musty air as Glen Walker walks through Highland Park’s shuttered McGregor Public Library. It’s a sadness that comes from seeing grandeur fall victim to decay.

Walker, who worked as the library’s sole maintenance man for 13 years, has watched this architectural gem on Woodward Avenue steadily deteriorate. Even before the city’s ongoing financial crisis led to the building’s closure three years ago, the library was falling into disrepair. Now, it’s ailing badly. The tall racks containing 80,000 books and periodicals are covered with sheets of plastic to protect the collection from water leaking through the roof, and the leaded glass windows, many of them smashed, have been boarded over, giving the interior of this cavernous old building a shadowed, ghostly feel.

In much of the building, wooden floors, trim work and plaster walls have been destroyed by the leaks.

“Instead of treating the library like a jewel, the city government treated it like a money drainer, and it just got worse and worse over time,” Walker says as he surveys the deterioration.

Still, much of the splendor remains as gilt and glory mingle with the moldering smell of old books and water-damaged plaster.

Built in 1926, the 39,500-square-foot structure is testament to the prosperity this city once enjoyed. The expansive lobby, with its marble floors and carved stone moldings, the art room with one of the library’s two Steinway baby grand pianos and Depression-era glass figurines, even the basement containing exquisite black-and-white photos of Highland Park during the boom days of this town where Henry Ford first began mass-producing automobiles — all reflect an economic vitality that is long past.

The fall has been a long one. At its peak, Highland Park — a municipal island surrounded by Detroit — had more than 45,000 residents packed into its 3 square miles. Today the population is at 16,000 and still falling. By 2001, with its tax base terribly eroded, the city was $31 million in debt and unable to pay its bills. That’s when Gov. Jennifer Granholm dispatched an emergency financial manager to assume control of the city’s purse strings.

The cost-cutting ax swung wide and deep, with the library’s $230,000 annual budget among the first expenses to get sliced. That was three years ago.

At that point, the library was already operating on a bare-bones budget. It had only one full-time librarian; state guidelines call for two in a city the size of Highland Park. Furthermore, the library was unable to keep up with yearly maintenance costs and technology, periodical and general collection updates. Meeting all those needs would have required a budget of about $450,000 a year, says Katherine Clarkson, former president of the McGregor Library Commission.

City officials say closure was unavoidable.

“While we recognize that cultural institutions like libraries are important, we just could not afford it,” says Ramona Henderson-Pearson, the emergency financial manager appointed by Granholm. (Arthur Blackwell, son of former Highland Park Mayor Robert Blackwell, will soon replace Henderson-Pearson.)

Highland Park Mayor Titus McClary says that, even if the decision were in the hands of elected officials instead of an appointed manager, the library still would have been shut down.

Even closed, the library is costing the city money. About $75,000 a year is being spent on heat, electricity, insurance and a security system, Henderson-Pearson says.

But those steps have not prevented damage to the library from mounting. The culprit, Walker says, is a roof that — despite several repair attempts — has been leaking on and off for about 10 years. As a result, much of the building’s interior has been ruined. Estimates of renovation costs range from $2 million to $15 million.

At this point, though, even the low-end estimates are far too costly for the cash-strapped city. Despite more than three years of oversight by an outside manager, Highland Park is still in a deep financial hole.

“The city realizes annual revenues of about $12 million and expenditures of $15 to $16 million,” says Darwin Parks, the city administrator appointed by Henderson-Pearson.

Added to that, Parks says, is an accumulated deficit of $13.7 million. Achieving a balanced budget and paying down the debt is the city’s top priority.

There is some good news regarding the library, however. Parks recently allocated nearly $160,000 to repair the structure’s porous roof.

Walker hopes the job will be done right this time.

“Over the years, they had contractors come in and do a bad job three or four times,” Walker says. “The city never followed up on it, and it just kept getting worse.”

Parks is confident the amount allocated for repairs is adequate to do a good job this time. No contractor has been hired yet, but Parks expects the work to be completed by fall.

Though it’s hoped that a repaired roof will prevent the building from being damaged to the point where it can’t be renovated, there is little optimism that it will soon be reopened. Even if the money could somehow be found to restore the building, there’s still the problem of coming up with the cash needed to operate the library.

Parks and an appointed steering committee have considered partnering with the Highland Park school district to fund the library. But these are lean times for schools as well. Forming a district library plan by partnering with surrounding communities to share the library’s costs is another idea that’s been discussed. But the most likely partners, Detroit and Hamtramck, are themselves facing dire financial situations, so the likelihood of that happening at this point seems remote.

For the time being, Detroit’s public libraries have opened their doors to Highland Park residents at no charge.

Although appreciated, that substitute is far from a satisfactory solution, Walker says.

“Every city should have its own library,” Walker says, “especially a city like Highland Park.”

Charles Maldonado is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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