“Why Am I Even Here?”

image asset

On this Thursday night, I was not going to the library for a book club, film viewing, or yoga class. I was responding to a call for input at a public meeting on the upcoming redesign of the building. I knew that place inside and out, and thought I should go to the meeting because I might have something useful to say.

I was hearing whispered tidbits about the vision for the library, primarily to open up an entrance on the façade that faces the city’s downtown. With no entrance, pedestrians on Main Street had no easy access into the library. It’s as if the library turned its back toward the main square. The redesign was intended to change this deep flaw. Designed in the 1950s when the urban renewal craze razed over 400 buildings in our downtown, the library was originally configured to make it easily accessible for patrons who drove cars. The main entrance on a side street faced the parking lot where patrons parked and then entered. Now that the city is finally open to promoting a walkable, people-filled downtown, one logical next step is to make sure buildings have actual entrances and windows opening up to Main Street.

The Thursday public meeting was packed, mostly with patrons I have seen at times among the stacks. We sat in chairs facing the architects and their renderings of the new redesign. For the first 15 minutes, one presenter wearing a business suit and red bow tie pointed to the beautiful drawings of the redesigned library and explained how the interior of the space was going to be reconfigured. When it was the audience’s turn to respond to the drawings and plans, patrons raised their hands one by one.

One woman was upset that the café on the first floor was going to be taken away. She liked to go there and meet a friend for a smoothie. She pointed to an area on the architect’s drawing near the used book store and suggested a corner where a snack stand could go. The presenter shook his head. There was no room there. Several attendees confirmed how excited they were that the entrance would be open to downtown: Parents could easily bring their kids to the library and then head out to the downtown common to go ice skating on the oval in the winter, or attend festivals in the spring.

I questioned moving our beloved children’s room to the third floor. As a parent, I felt my kids were safer on the main first floor thanks to all the activity and what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” there. The quiet and more isolated upper floors were occasionally areas where patrons have had unwelcome encounters. Even though the current children’s room in the back of the building was now going to host the new front entrance, I pointed to the drawings and another area on the side of the building’s first floor. “That could be a good space,” I suggested. The designer shook his head. “No, the children will be better off on the third floor,” he responded.

The presenters dismissed every suggestion that attendees offered at the meeting that night. The drawings of the new building were aesthetically beautiful. The plan was already fixed. As we exited the meeting, I overheard a young man mumble to himself, “Wow! That was really pointless.” Sometimes, all someone wants is to be listened to and heard.

I often turn to Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” a model she devised in 1969 that has helped me understand my experience at meetings I attend that invite democratic public participation. At the library meeting that night, we were simply informed of the plans that were already developed. There was no further room for shaping the outcome.

It called to mind the memory of a time I was visiting a mother of a tween boy, who gave him this choice for dinner: “Do you want meatloaf or salmon?” The boy was so excited to decide his dinner and blurted out, “Meatloaf!” The mother turned to him, “No, you will have salmon.” Under his breath, the boy muttered, “If you knew what I was going to have, why did you even ask me?”

That’s what I wanted to whisper, too, as I walked out the door of the library that night. 

You May Also Like