Back in the ’50s and ’60s, much of downtown Columbus fell to the wrecking ball in an orgy of “urban renewal.” Many of the old structures that were built around the turn of the century were torn down and replaced by skyscrapers–or, more likely, surface parking lots. By the time my family moved here in 1971, the Neil House, a hotel across from the Statehouse, and Union Station, shown in the photograph below, still remained, but their days were numbered. Both were torn down in the late ’70s.
I wish Union Station had survived. It was an example of Beaux Arts architecture, and featured an arched arcade for its entrance. The arcade, with its series of arches, could have been repurposed into shops and restaurants and brew pubs, but the city planners of that day didn’t really have that kind of foresight. It was easier to remove than preserve, so that it what they did. It makes you appreciate the surviving structures, like the Ohio Theater, the Atlas Building, the Wyandotte Building, and the older buildings on Gay Street and elsewhere in the core downtown area, that also could have been demolished.
All that remains of the colossal Union Station facade is the arch shown above, which stands, alone, at the entrance to a small park in the Arena District. It’s a silent reminder of what once was, and what could still have have been.
The new branch is a big improvement — literally. It’s much larger, inside and out, and my brief bit of perusing during our visit indicates that its collection is more extensive than that at the old branch, too. That’s a welcome change indeed, because I like browsing and grabbing a book that strikes my fancy at the time, and I had just about worked through all of the selections in my preferred literary genres in the standing collection at the old branch. With the additional book options available at the new location, I’ll be kept busy for a while.
I’m not sure that we’re going to keep using the Parsons Branch, however, when the Main Library renovations are done and Main reopens to the public in a few weeks. With the shift of Parsons to the south, it’s almost certainly farther away from us than the Main Library. When you add that fact to the far more extensive standing collection at Main, I suspect that my choice when I’m in the mood for some browsing will be to cross over the freeway and head to Main.
The new Parsons branch will be interesting to keep an eye on for another reason. It’s part of the ongoing effort to improve Parsons Avenue, and with the move south it’s an attempt to nudge the redevelopment wave a few blocks farther away from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital zone. The new neighborhood for the branch has a decidedly more gritty feel, but that may change as the new library and some other redevelopment efforts in the area come on line. I’m sure that civic leaders are hoping that a new library can help the area feel more like a neighborhood and less like an urban renewal project. Today, at least, the branch was jammed on its opening day. It would be a good sign if that continues.
Today we took a drive down Woodward Avenue, from Russell’s place in Pontiac all the way down to downtown Detroit. It is a breath-taking trip that takes you deep into the dark and disturbing heart of urban decay.
Woodward is an eight-lane boulevard that rolls through tony suburbs like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham. At one point the road crosses over a highway and enters Detroit proper, and the landscape changes.
Countless structures along this major road are graffiti-covered, burnt-out, gutted, weed-grown, collapsing. It is riveting and immensely powerful and jaw-dropping, all at the same time. You can’t help but reflect on the loss of wealth and the loss of hope that accompanied this slow-moving, terrible disaster.
As the miles rolled by and the sad vistas passed, I had one simple thought: “How the hell did this happen?” Was it the hubris of the domestic auto industry? Was it political corruption and incompetent local government? Was it poorly conceived “urban renewal” projects that took money away from places where it could have made a difference? Or was it just titanic economic forces that decreed that once-mighty and wealthy Detroit was due for a fall?
I’ll post more pictures about our journey down Woodward Avenue this afternoon and tonight. But still I wonder: “How the hell did this happen?”