20 Jun Cleo & Ron: What We’re Seeing in the Midwest

Cleo and I are barnstorming the near-Midwest, from Detroit to Pittsburgh, on my book tour for the paperback of From Animal House to Our House. Last night we had a full house at the Akron main library, thanks to Janice Radl, Akron’s science & technology librarian, who was enterprising and energetic — she publicized widely, kept in frequent contact with me, got me a radio interivew, and posted the event on the library’s home page. She and a bunch of Akron folk took me out to dinner afterwards. An author couldn’t ask for better treatment.

Compare this to what happened at another library: I walked in an hour before the event and informed the two young women at the main desk that I was the author for the night’s event. They looked at each other quizzically, then looked at me and said, “What event?” Then they said I probably wanted the Science and Technology desk. So I walked farther into the library and addressed the woman at the Science and Technology desk. Her response was the same: “There’s an event tonight?” She sent me to the Humanities desk and, sure enough, the humanities people knew who I was. But if nobody else in the library knew of my event, what hope did I have that anybody outside the library knew of the event. Six people showed up to see me. The programming director didn’t seem concerned. Apparently, some librarians feel that all they have to do is schedule the event, then everything else will take care of itself.
House Love

I’m seeing some amazing libraries, by the way, like Toledo’s Deco masterwork, lovingly maintained. Its main hall features high-Deco chandeliers and a mural of human progress painted on glass that runs the perimeter of the room. In the children’s wing, there are fanciful paintings (from the original construction) inspired by chldren’s tales. Toledo expanded the library about ten years ago, adding a stunning addition that includes an auditorium, art gallery, roof-top green space for concerts and events, and an atrium that shows off the ornate granite back side of the original building. “Ohio loves its libraries,” my host informed me.

As I am now a DIY expert, I meet people who come to ask questions about their house problems. One woman said her back yard had been taken over by ground hogs and she asked if I had any suggestions about how to get rid of them. I told her I was familiar only with rats, not ground hogs.

After one event, an old man came up to me and said, “I didn’t buy your book but here’s a litle something.” Then he slipped a dollar bill into my hand. I said, “Thank you!”

I drove through Canada, around the north shore of Lake Erie, to get to Buffalo from Detroit — it’s the fastest route. I stopped for gas about halfway across, only to discover that my American credit card wouldn’t work in Canada (you have to tell your bank to activate your card for international travel). Fortunately, I had just enough cash to pay the bill. Otherwise, I’m not sure what would have happened. Some things to know before you go to Canada: you need your passport, also verification of your dog’s vaccinations, and you’re not allowed to carry a gun. One Canadian border guard asked me wearily, “You don’t have a gun or anything crazy like that, do you?” Sometimes we forget how wild we Americans appear to people in other countries.

Buffalo is an America mecca for those who love old buildings. Like Baltimore, Buffalo avoided many of the ravages of urban renewal (i.e., razing buildings to make parking lots) because it wasn’t wealthy enough to attract those mindless developers in the 1960s. Now, it’s a showcase of architecture, including an amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house. The big worry among Buffalo preservationists is the eminent destruction of the Trica building, a crica-1900 daylight factory (big windows for sunlight) that a hospital wants to raze. The hospital doesn’t care that the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Buffalo, I met Ellen and Joe Lettieri, a couple who bought a 6,000 square foot mansion that they are going to turn into a Bed and Breakfast. They bought it at auction, having seen only the exterior. The house belonged originally to Herbert H. Hewitt, the “rubber king,” who some say invented the first inflatable tire, among many other inventions. It has ten bedrooms, a ballroom on the third floor, and is remamrkably intact. One of the advantages of directing the Preservation America project is that I get to meet cool people in cool old houses like this.

The biggest surprise of the trip so far has been Detroit. You may think Detroit is in the toilet but it’s not. I repeat: it’s not. As I interviewed a number of people for Preservation America, it became clear to me that Detroit’s story is worth telling in a longer format. So I returned to the Motor City to do more interviews with the aim to do a documentary on what’s happening there. Plenty is happening. For starters, young people — the “creative class” — are flocking to the city because real estate is cheap and the city is welcoming innovations of every kind. As you have no doubt heard, Detroit is now in the hands of an “emergency manager,” who’s in charge of keeping the city out of bankruptcy.

But Detroiters have seen so much corruption and mismanagement,they are mostly ignoring the current spectacle of crisis management and, instead, are focusing on local solutions to long-term problems — because it’s clear that, regardless of what happens, the city government isn’t going to be of much help. As a result, there are many grassroots enterprises. Take food production as an example: the city now has over 20 square miles of open land: that’s as big as the island of Manhattan. So Detroiters are gardening with a view to feed the city: there are at least 1500 community gardens, 70 of which have formed a collaborative to create a “Grown in Detroit” brand, all of which creates jobs and revitalizes neighborhoods. The Detroit is a city experiment the likes of which America has never seen. I will return to Detroit at the end of July to learn more.

Final note: I lost a pineapple in my van. I don’t know what happened but I bought a pineapple, am pretty sure I put it in my van, and now I can’t find it. I’ve looked everywhere. Cleo didn’t eat it, I’m sure of that.