Another Perspective

Get the Funk Out

America's urban libraries, once "the delivery room for the birth of ideas -- a place where history comes to life," have become homeless shelters, lunatic asylums, and public baths.

By 5.13.05

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St. Louis' Public Library was designed in 1912 by Cass Gilbert, architect of the U.S. Supreme Court Building and New York's celebrated Woolworth Building. The modified Italian Renaissance structure is prized for its elegant classical interior of Tennessee marble and hand-carved quartered oak. On either side of the central foyer rise marble staircases illuminated by stained glass windows. The two-story Grand Hall features a coffered ceiling of molded plaster with gold accents and cast-bronze chandeliers. The marble floor is modeled on that of the Pantheon in Rome.

Among its treasures one finds the George Fox Steedman Architectural Room, which houses a world-class collection of rare books on architecture and related arts. The room is decorated in the English style of the 16th century with carved paneling, leaded glass windows and bookcases, a stone fireplace, and carved oak furniture. Mr. Steedman willed the Library his personal collection of 600 volumes, along with an endowment and funds to construct the room. Among the rare books in the collection is Piranesi's Opere, a 23-volume set that once belonged to the British House of Commons Library.

In short, the library is a litterateur's paradise. Or would be were it not for the New Life Evangelistic Center next door. The Center -- part soup kitchen, part flophouse, part church, part television and radio station -- is run by the preposterous preacher and perennial gubernatorial candidate Larry Rice. The Rev. Rice provides a shabby bed and a bowl of offal to the city's homeless in return for sitting through his nightly rants from the book of Revelation and hours of bad gospel music. At 5 a.m. the homeless are booted out into the cold. They congregate in the small city park next door where they mingle with refugees from the nearby Salvation Army's Railton Residence. The park, adjacent to the Rev. Rice's temple, the library, and a child care center, is the daily repository of some 35 or 40 homeless men (and one or two women), many of them alcoholics and drug addicts, nearly all of them suffering from some sort of grievous mental illness.

When the library opens at 10 a.m. the homeless immediately move in doors. Each day, particularly when the weather is bad, the library fills not with scholars and students nor with downtown office workers, but with great masses of the stewed and unwashed. The halls and stairwells are clogged with funky unkempt men toting garbage bags filled with what one can only assume is clothing. In the foul-smelling restrooms the doors to the stalls have been removed so that legitimate patrons are unable to use the facilities without being subjected to an audience of bug-eyed lunatics. A few of the homeless make use of the facilities to bathe. Unsuspecting patrons are regularly treated to unsettling site of sodden, deranged men standing buck naked at the washroom sinks. Still others, who have successfully managed to avoid contact with soap and water for a good half year, find a table in the humanities or periodical sections and doze noisily. The librarians, powerless to remove them (and often unable to remove them at closing) simply frown and bear it while waiting for their transfer to a county branch. In the evening when the library closes the homeless shuffle outside, congregating on the steps where they pass a bottle before passing out. Cass Gilbert's elegant entranceways are permanently stained with urine.

AMERICA'S URBAN biblioteques long ago lost their cachet as havens for scholarly research. Once "the delivery room for the birth of ideas -- a place where history comes to life," they are now little more than a place to flop, surf the Net, or a source of free rock CDs and DVDs one can take home and copy. Once cultural Meccas, urban libraries are now more akin to homeless shelters, lunatic asylums, and public baths. The problem is not unique to St. Louis. Libraries across the country are experiencing similar troubles.

The St. Louis City Council could, presumably, follow the example of Houston, Texas, and pass a series of library regulations prohibiting sleeping on tables, eating, using restrooms for bathing and "offensive bodily hygiene that constitutes a nuisance to others." (Only two Houston alderpersons voted against the ordinance, both of whom later accused the council of targeting the homeless.)

Already liberal watchdog groups have spoken out against what they perceive to be the latest attack on the homeless. Ironic, since these same groups were responsible for getting rid of 93 percent of state psychiatric hospital beds between 1955 and 2000, and passing the notorious deinstitutionalization laws in the 1970s and '80s that forced the mentally ill, the alcoholics and the drug abusers, who make up nearly all of the homeless, onto the mean streets and into dangerous city shelters populated by the criminally insane.

In his now famous 1999 Washington Post article, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, an expert on schizophrenia, noted that "hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans are eking out a pitiful existence on city streets ... because of the misguided efforts of civil rights advocates to keep the severely ill out of hospitals and out of treatment." Worse, the most seriously affected states have passed laws that "prevent treating individuals until they become dangerous."

Were hordes of homeless to begin wandering the "public" halls, restrooms and lobbies of public buildings like the U.S. Supreme Court or Cass Gilbert's Minnesota State Capitol, they doubtless would be shown the door forthwith. But because there are no judges or politicians on staff at the public library it is considered the legal right of the homeless to take up residence therein. Had Cass Gilbert known what was to become of his library, I suspect he would have allowed less room for books and shelving and more room for showers and sleeping cots and stained glass windows that open to allow a little fresh air to circulate.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.