The cornerstone of this church-like building at the corner of Midvale and Warden indicates that it was built in 1918. That was a tough year for Europe (last year of the First World War, destroyer of life, wealth and empires), and with the outbreak of a world-wide flu epidemic in November of that year, for the US as well. But despite those conditions, the City of Philadelphia built a large, stone, Tudor revival library with huge windows, ornate wooden interior moldings and a still-functioning clock on the inside of the entryway. This morning, the library continued to do exactly what it was designed for – making a deep collection of learning available to us, the citizens, for absolutely no money whatsoever.
Today, in 2011, it is inconceivable that the City would build a brand new public library on a good lot, in a good part of town, from the ground up, in a structure with integrity and ample architectural interest. There is no money to take on these types of projects anymore. So what changed? Based on the number of abandoned factories I see from the R6 between here and Center City (and the crumbling Autocar plant I can see from the windows of East Falls Fitness, itself a former industrial building of some description), I suspect that when Philadelphia stopped making things, it began the long slow decline, hastened by increased taxes on businesses which stayed, white flight, a notoriously ineffective and corrupt City government, and that strange Philadelphia habit — a sense of inferiority, that the City will always be substandard and deserves this.
I did not feel that way this morning in the library. My oldest daughter and I arrived shortly after it opened at 10 am, and spent the next hour or so moving from one bookcase to the next – amazed at the variety and quality of the material. After we selected books ranging from an English translation of the Qur’an to a 25th anniversary edition of Goedel, Escher and Bach (Kate likes math and music), I found an issue of Philadelphia Magazine and found a comfortable empty table while Kate looked for a new book about a one-legged snowboader called “Just Don’t Fall.” I would never spend the money on Philadelphia Magazine, but reading it for free, about the downfall of Old City, and the general lament of our condition, was truly enjoyable.
Our forebears, long since gone, planned and left us something useful and improving, a well lit space filled with books, two blocks down the hill. We should by rights do the same, but either lack the resources or won’t look beyond our own increasingly worrisome situation. So maybe our paralysis is forgiveable. Or maybe it’s making things even worse. A vicious circle, a mean cycle. We need to break it somehow. RM