Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What of the Telling Mansion?

Yesterday, Cuyahoga County Public Library’s board of directors unanimously voted to move the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Public Library from its current site at the Telling Mansion on Mayfield Road. In about two years, a new facility will exist on Green Road – across from the former Regina High School. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the Telling Mansion – which has housed the Library since 1952. I have many fond memories of that Library dating back to my years as a student at Brush High School in the 1980s. I would stop there on weekdays after school, spending about an hour there before I headed to start my shift at work. It was at the Library where I was able to expand my musical horizons, borrowing classical LPs which were prohibitively expensive to purchase.

The timing of the purchase agreements on the three Green Road properties and yesterday’s vote make it obvious that the CCPL was deep into planning this move long before the public was given notice. It’s also worth noting that CCPL habitually scheduled public meetings during regular business hours – when most of the public was unable to attend. In short, CCPL did an end-run around the taxpayers who fund them. By the time residents knew what was going on, it was already too late to mount an effective response. As late as Monday, regular patrons of the Library were unaware of the situation. An astonished “WHAT?” was the most common reaction when I mentioned it to several people there.

The CCPL has already made it clear why they want to build a new facility: energy efficiency; clear sightlines; and the ability to reduce staff. All laudable goals. But would New York tear down its old Library because it’s out of date? No, because it’s a connection to New York’s history – as is the Telling Mansion for South Euclid. This goes to the heart of why libraries exist. To what extent does the CCPL’s goal to run what it deems to be a “modern” and “efficient” network of libraries run counter to its obligation to hear and heed the voices of the local community – the taxpayers who foot the bill? How can they hear the public’s input, when they deliberately tried to avoid it?

Especially upsetting was the apparent lack of interest seen from Lyndhurst. While the Telling site is technically the South Euclid-Lyndhurst library, many people from Lyndhurst have probably been using the Mayfield branch on Wilson Mills Road. I know this from personal experience, as I lived in Lyndhurst from 1994-1998 and that’s there I went. But the Mayfield site will be moving to a new location on SOM Center Road in less than a year. Sometime in 2014, there will be no local library for residents of Lyndhurst – except for the tiny branch by the Richmond Mall, which is only useful as a pickup/drop off facility. It’s worth noting that, while I received prompt responses from CCPL’s Executive Director Sari Feldman, Mayor Welo and other South Euclid officials – Mayor Cicero of Lyndhurst never responded to my e-mail.

There are some people who are happy to see the Library move. Perhaps some of this attitude is reflected in a letter that has been making the rounds, in which a citizen defended the Library’s move by complaining that “hordes of blacks” from Brush High School invade the branch weekdays after school and cause a ruckus. I have no doubt that the writer of this letter holds an opinion that is all too common among a certain generation of our residents. I well remember when an African-American family’s home in Lyndhurst was vandalized in the 1980s. Change in societal attitudes comes slowly. But it’s sad that in this day and age there are still people who clutch their belongings close to themselves and rush away whenever a youngster of color is near. For myself, I’ve been at the library during such hours and I’ve noted no unruly behavior, just young people quietly studying at tables or at the bank of computers.

But the board has voted and what’s done is done. The CCPL is not subject to voter referenda and certainly not to online petitions – especially when many signatures come from people outside Cuyahoga County. Nothing is to be gained by engaging in an acrimonious battle as happened last year with Oakwood. Now is the time to look forward (although I will be unlikely to support the levy request which is certain to come in the next few years).

I’ve always made it plain that my primary concern was preserving the Telling Mansion and keeping it as a site which can be enjoyed by the public. Last week, I received an e-mail from Director Feldman in which she promised the CCPL would “seek a buyer who wishes to maintain the historic integrity of the building as we have over the years”. But there’s a long way from “seeking” a buyer to “drawing a line in the sand”, and agreeing to sell ONLY to a buyer who will treat the Telling Mansion with respect. This is critically important, because the building’s fate hangs in the balance. Contrary to popular belief, the fact that the Telling Mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places does NOT protect it from demolition. When it comes to private property, which the Telling site would become if sold to a private entity, the NHRP merely regulates how the exterior of the building is maintained and provides tax incentives to maintain the interior in a historically appropriate manner. But there is nothing to prevent someone from tearing the building down and building, say, condominiums.

Remember what happened to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue, and take heed.