Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Library Plight, by Ralph Nader

There used to be a time when baseball parks were built by private investors—usually a wealthy local family—and the stands were full of what used to be called the “masses.”

There used to be a time when libraries were maintained and stocked as an integral part of the neighborhood and community. Not a single library closed in America due to the great economic depression of the nineteen thirties.

As illustrated so elaborately in Washington D.C. last week, the “gleaming new baseball stadium” temporarily named “Nationals Park” for the local major league baseball team, opened with $ 611 million dollars—mostly taxpayers money—going into its constructions. A Washington Post editorial crowed that the stadium was built “on time and within budget.” Why not? The cost came in at twice the estimate five years ago and its frantic construction pace reflected the priorities of the nation’s capital.

Consider one aspect of this “tale of two cities”—the depleted and disrepaired condition of the main Martin Luther King Library and its twenty six neighborhood branches. The annual budget last year was only $33 million. Four of the branches were shut down for remodeling or rebuilding three and a half years ago. The money has been appropriated. But with the sites being eyed by avaricious developers for “multi-use” complexes, among other reasons, the residents still do not have operating libraries. “On time and within budget” is not even on the radar.

Now I ask you—what is the most appropriate, profound, and respectful use of tax dollars? A ballpark built for mega-millionaire owners who could have raised their own capital? Or “gleaming new libraries” which edify a metropolis and play a critical role in educational, civic and urban renewal?

The question would answer itself were the decision made by local referendum. Polls continually showed that the disenfranchised people of the District of Columbia opposed a taxpayer-funded professional ballpark. The new mayor Adrian Fenty made this opposition a major issue in his improbable run for that office in 2006.

There is little doubt that the people would have preferred to use that $611 million (and other estimates are higher) for library renovations and acquisitions as well as neighborhood recreational facilities for participatory sports by all ages. Studies have shown that after school programs at libraries help children learn better and participatory sports—indoor and outdoor—keep physically exercised youngsters from getting into street trouble.

Nationals Park opened to great fanfare this past weekend, hailed by page after page of coverage in excruciating detail by the Washington Post. Would that this major newspaper devote such attention to the details of 27 library buildings, many of them crumbling and dysfunctional, in its home town.

When Post opinion writer Marc Fisher did devote two columns to the library’s plight in 2002, it helped spark our D.C. Library Renaissance Project, headed by Robin Diener. With library-minded citizens, this Project has brought more public attention, an increased budget and some improvement in the D.C. Library system, long considered to be in the bottom tier of library systems in major American cities.

When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, it’s small wonder that priorities are inverted to the level of the grotesque. Our national capital has been undergoing one of the biggest commercial building booms in its history. Cranes are busy everywhere, except for building the schools, libraries, clinics and neighborhood parks. Real estate developers and their customary allies—banks, mortgage firms, corporate law firms and trade associations—dominate. Not the people, who cannot even have the right to vote for two Senators and a Representative having full voting power in the Congress.

In its March 28, 2008 special, ten page section on Nationals Park, the Washington Post printed a full page “Letter to Nats Fans” by the team’s owners, the Lerner family. They profusely thanked the Mayor, the DC City Council, the corporate-welfare promoter called the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission, along with the construction firms, consultants, and workers.

Remarkably absent from their list of gratitude were the D.C. taxpayers who paid for the building that will make the Lerners and their partners even more wealthy. (These owners are in arbitration over their demand that the taxpayers even pay for the uniforms of the multi-millionaire ball players!)

The Lerners, in all decency, should name the stadium “Taxpayers Stadium.” Instead, they are shopping around the corporate groves for a company to pay to put its name on the building instead of its present “Nationals Park” designation.

Once again the boosteristic Washington Post headlined “Millions Ride on Nats’ Naming Rights.” It is the Lerners who get the millions, but Mark Lerner shared a worry, during an interview with the Post reporter while looking around the Park.

“It’s going to be a huge and expensive task between the signs on the roadways, and all the signs in here—all these neon signs. It’s going to cost a fortune—when the time comes,” he declared.

D.C. taxpayers are left to wonder who will pay for replacing these Nationals Park signs? They better check the fine print.

Ralph Nader is the author of The Seventeen Traditions. Read other articles by Ralph.

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