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The Seattle Library: A View from Two Cities

Since returning to the middle class at the beginning of this year, I have really started to enjoy reading The New Yorker. Alas, I have to skip over a lot of stuff at the beginning of the magazine about what’s happening in New York, but there’s a lot of good articles and really excellent writing. I really appreciate The New Yorker, even if it makes me a feel a tiny bit provincial in The Second City.

I have read that Chicago has had a long-standing inferiority complex, because despite its own inherent greatness, and its own motto to “make no small plans” it will never be the Great Metropolis that New York City is. On the one hand, a lot of folks dig that its not New York City. We are, after all, midwesterners, who would be lost in such an insanely huge city. Chicago is so large and chaotic as it is … why would we want to make it moreso? But our Civic Leaders – the rich folk, the intelligentsia … the people who could have anything they want, and could live anywhere they want, have to justify settling for America’s Second-Greatest city. So, they have historically taken corrective measures to secure Chicago’s superiority – the World’s Fair and the Columbian Exposition. Our great Museums, most notably the Art Institute … and the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Tallest Building in the World. Busiest Airport in the World. The title “Windy City” was earned not because of our weather, but from New York City newpapers, reflecting on how much we bragged about our World’s Fair, so long ago.

I was reading The New Yorker today, which had a good article on Seattle’s new library … designed for useability. A bold statement at the beginning of the new century, that could be compared with and contrasted against New York’s own great library, built at the beginning of the last century. The praise was even-handed. There was no jealousy. After all, The New Yorker already lives at the Center of the Universe, it is interesting that one of America’s modest cities should construct something new and innovative.

Here in Chicago we have ourselves our own, recently constructed monument of a library. It is a monument – it is big and handsome. A monument to books, named for Harold Washington, our first black mayor, a great mayor who brought the city together. A smart, educated man who made the blacks and the white liberals proud. A man who loved books. He died in office and we made a big big monument and stuffed it full of books. The Harold Washington Library is impressive.

I skimmed through the Chicago Tribune the other day, as I do every day, because I subscribe to the local paper as well. I don’t really like the Tribune much, as half of the pulp is devoted to buying overpriced cars or overpriced suburban homes or overpriced home furnishings for your overpriced urban condominium, or an overpriced getaway from your overpriced lifestyle, but the comics are better than the Sun Times’ and I already get most of my hard news from NPR and through toldme.com, and I sometimes do the crossword puzzle. This week they had an article on the Seattle Library that I pretty much skipped. I looked instead at the large sidebar that dominated the article – Harold Washington has more books! Harold Washington has more miles of bookshelves! Seattle has more computer terminals … and some innovation … but Harold Washington is bigger. We need not feel threatened.

Ah, the intelligentsia at the Tribune were at it again – feeling insecure. Unlike New Yorkers, we had to remind ourselves that however preoccupied the nation is with the great new library Seattle has, the great new library we’ve had for the past decade is not actually upstaged.

Because I don’t have a lot of respect for the Tribune, I was able to smile at the contrast … the old insecurities about being upstaged laid bare by people I don’t really respect anyway. That’s okay. I love Chicago, and the Harold Washinton Library is a fine monument, but it is also, partly, a byproduct of our “Chicago is the …ist” mentality so it certainly has a lot of books and is certainly a great library resource for people who go to libraries, but as a public space, as a public library, as a work of art and architecture ingenuity … Seattle may well have the better library. I’d like to visit it some day, if I ever get out to Seattle. But I’m comfortable in the great city of Chicago, with our old-fashioned monument to books. I can appreciate the Seattle library, as a New Yorker can, for the triumph that it probably is. I needn’t get bent out of shape about it, because I am sufficiently satisfied with my own position, at a comfortable distance from the Center of the Universe, where day-to-day goings-on of far-flung cities need not intefere with my enjoyment of the good things in life, like the quality writing of The New Yorker magazine.

/danny

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