Over the summer I made my first visit to Detroit. My husband (James) has been teaching a one-credit course about it for several years, but neither of us had ever been there. He recommended this book to me after he read it. A story told in vignettes from a writer who is given a house in Detroit by an unnamed organization. The intention was that Moore would have "a room of one's own" in which to concentrate on her writing without the distractions of rent. Things did not work out exactly as intended. A myriad of problems beset the author as a result of the gift of the house.
James recommended the book to me when he read the first snippet about a library
A woman emails me because she hears I have been asking about local literacy programs. In her email she writes that she presumes I own many books. She would like some, she says. She is taking up donations because her child's school library does not have any books. She says this casually, as if books were an option that this library simply chose not to offer. Later I discover it is common in Detroit schools to not have books. I give her every title I can spare.
This depressing view of libraries in Detroit continues throughout:
The downtown public library is grand and stately...Inside are frescoes, rotting, ornate decorations marred by water stains or holes, and a display of all the former branches of the Detroit Public Library system, their years of and reasons for closure or, in a few cases, their current hours...For three years, the branch near my house is not open when I stop by. I go to the main branch instead to request information on the history of my neighborhood, but the librarian looks annoyed when I ask for assistance. He tells me there are no books for me. So I leave.
Easily the most gutting architectural experience of my life is stumbling across the charred crumbling beams of a house on the northwest side...The roof is gone, only a few corners of the building still standing, and full daylight shines on a space intended to remain interior...The contents of the burned half structure have been picked through, with only functionless children's toys...sacrified to the land. Undisturbed is a whole children's library, remarkably undamaged, that no one thinks to plunder.
In unpacking her personal library Moore's initial excitement of turning the second bedroom in her house into a library is quickly thwarted when she discovers that there are not furniture stores that carry book shelves, nor that any local furniture makers have any interest in building any.
Eventually, she determines that the headache that came with the free house isn't worth it.
After teaching for two years in Detroit, a former student, no longer in any of my classes, tells me she checked out my book from interlibrary loan. She expresses dismay that the school I teach at does not carry my books, although they are used as texts in schools elsewhere. "It was really good!" she says, eyes wide. "I can't believe you teach here!"
By this time I have already submitted my notice.
A bittersweet moment comes when a young neighbor, against her parents wishes, comes to Moore's house to and asks her to help create her own zine. Which she does and "It is amazing". This is only after Moore
put every imaginable effort into convincing the young women of Detroit, in this neighborhood and elsewhere, not only to love and value literature but to wield it as a tool
However, Moore has given up at this point and has packed up her belongings to move to a new city and a different job.
convinced that the disregard for literacy in the schools and bookshelves in the furniture stores and books in the libraries all point to a basic truth about the way writing is valued here. It is not.
As she reflects on her time in Detroit she has this to say about her neighbors
If I were to craft a composite portrait of Detroiters I have come to know, I would sketch out a strong, steady woman of color who conserves her energy to ensure she retains enough to get through the day, focused always on the survival of her children. She would be kept with some regularity from opportunity by municipal failure or malfeasance, making instead do with what is on hand, parceling it to loved ones carefully, often well aware of the lead poisoning, the crumbling public school, the absence of books from library shelves, the water shutoff, the foreclosure. The women I meet in Detroit maintain an entire city on the strength of love and perseverance...
It should not have to be so.