Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There Must Be Something in Books

This is, perhaps, old news, but I was recently introduced to the heartrending photographs taken at the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, aka the Roosevelt Warehouse. I spent the last 15 minutes clicking through the set with my heart in my throat.
Granted, Jim is an incredible photographer, but it's the sheer destruction of the book depository that causes me to tear up. I still can't get over it.

My first reaction was "what the hell happened?" Apparently, it was everyone's first reaction. Jim wrote up an incredibly detailed history of the depository and the series of events that eventually led to the ruins that we see today. Short answer (in case you don't want to read the whole story, which you really should): a major fire ravaged the warehouse in 1987, seemingly destroying everything, causing officials to abandon the wreckage; it later became apparent that not all supplies had been destroyed, leaving perfectly good textbooks and much-needed school supplies abandoned. The building was eventually purchased by a local magnate, but the building and its contents were left to the elements, vandals, drug addicts, and Detroit's increasing homeless population. While the warehouse was once ridiculously easy to break into, security measures were tightened (albeit superficially) only after a frozen corpse was recovered at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

In another post detailing his photographing the book depository, Jim muses that he is "struck by the way people respond in the comments with a sense of 'sadness'". He goes on to ask his readers:
why is it "sad" for a building to be left to decay if there is no one willing to use it? Can decay be something more than sentimental? Can it ever be beautiful? Can it just be respected for what it is, and not further corrupted by our emotions? And what is it that draws us to ruination? Why do some of us find it so compelling?

My sadness, if you can call it that, stems not from the fact that this old building is crumbling. It comes more from the history of it, the stories of the people whose very lives revolved around the building and its contents. Detroit is the quintessential blue-collar city, and it is impossible for me to remove the workers from the warehouse when I click through the photographs. I can't help but imagine the warehouse floors free of decay and bustling with workers. Distribution records, charred along the edges, but still legible, litter the floors. Someone spent their day filling out forms; someone spent their day moving boxes. 1986 feels so far gone, yet it's only recently passed. I wonder what happened to the people who woke up one morning and started their day like it was any other, only to watch their livelihood go up in flame -- literally. Did they simply move to another depository, or were they forced into the unemployment line, trying to find another marketable skill?

Yet what really slays me are the abandoned supplies. Granted, the fire destroyed quite a bit of the warehouse's contents -- what wasn't burnt was severely water damaged, but so much was simply written off as unsalvageable. Mountains of unwrapped textbooks still on pallets are now covered in mold; it's pretty easy to see that these books were perfectly fine at the time of the fire -- why weren't they redistributed? Some workbooks appear to have sustained minimal damage, 20+ years later.
Detroit is one of nation's poorest school districts. Administrators are sensationalist newspapers' darlings, never failing to provide scandal purchased with money from the district budget. My heart aches not for the ruined building, but for the children whose futures went up in smoke and/or were simply abandoned. Student achievement scores are sickeningly low and it is impossible to pretend that this is a recent occurrence -- 47% of adults in the Motor City are functionally illiterate. How many of these men and women would have benefited from the piles upon piles of unused material found in the book depository?
I must admit, this is a subject that is close to my heart. I once taught in an outreach program for at-risk youth. The kids were incredibly smart, but because of poor living situations and because they weren't receiving the necessary attention in school, they were falling through the cracks. 14 year-olds couldn't tell time on an analog clock, could barely write a simple sentence. And while I was far from working in the nation's most financially-needy school district, I didn't always have enough books or worksheets for the kids. Paints and markers were purchased with our own money -- and we didn't make that much. The sight of all those unused school supplies makes me bitterly angry and sad.
The photos stand as a testament to the failures of the system, of, as Jim puts it, "abandoned hope". I look at the pictures and see so much waste: wasted chalk, wasted paper, wasted opportunities.

But of course, there's always some silver lining. Some of my favourite photos from the set are of a tree called the "ghetto palm" growing from a soil made of burned textbooks. While the destruction is heartbreaking, there is something poetic and beautiful about some life bursting from the ruin.



Diana said...

When I first saw those pics, I had a whole "ignorance is bliss" experience. As I kept reading your post, it is something that shatters the reality of someone in the career of education. Aside from the humor, it's great to see that someone has a heart for the ones with no voices. It is heartbreaking to see a dismantled library; even worse when no one does anything to rebuild it.

Vanessa said...

The state of education today is abhorrent that I really don't think I can put into words how sad it makes me. That it is not TRULY a priority in America is one of the greatest hypocrisies I can imagine. No Child Left Behind indeed. Leaving Behind the Already Left Behind, more life.


amanda said...

@Diana: My curiosity got the better of me; I had to know what happened. I love when you comment -- you always have a wonderfully thought-out response.

@Vanessa: Working with public schools really made me hate No Child Left Behind. Grading the end of the year assessment tests just about made me suicidal with guilt. Who do we focus on: the barely literate 3rd grader, who we have more time to help, or the barely literate 8th grader, who is quickly being shuffled off to high school, despite the fact that he/she is grossly unprepared?