The New Medici’s: Private Support of Public Spaces

ACORN Education

IMG_5573Little Rock  The new Children’s Library in Little Rock, where the fundraiser was held, was something of a startling edifice planted in the lower income neighborhood that we used to call Woodrow  to Pine and Oak Forest, only blocks from the old Highland Court housing project.  There were amazing parts to the building.  It had a grandly sweeping design backed by a small pond and grounds.  A greenhouse for some reason was on the property.  A big sign greeted folks saying READ.

Across the street from this grand building I watched a man fixing his car in his front yard.  Several speakers commented on how the library was such an asset to the neighborhood, which is usually what people say when they have never been to the neighborhood before and hope that it is way different the next time they come by, if ever.  For the life of me it felt like the building did not belong in the neighborhood.   At least not yet.  I wondered if the neighborhood around the library could survive the library.  One or the other would have to change and adapt, and I was hoping it would be the library.   As much as this library was well intentioned and could be a key part of the legacy of the Central Arkansas Library System and its politically astute and visionary leader, Bobbie Roberts, unless the library makes a commitment to the whole neighborhood much differently than it has so far, for blocks around residents are going to find themselves in coming years waking up to find themselves part of a parking lot.  This is a library that screams to the need for a collaborative partnership with an ACORN-style community organization!

In the new world of pervasive neo-liberalism, Roberts has shrewdly announced plans to name the library after Hilary Clinton so that he can graft the building to a new Medici strategy and find a rainmaker who could help support the library and its needs in the future.  So sure, if I had a say, I would honor the neighborhood, its people and its past in the name, but in these days Roberts and other executives like him know that money in the bank now for public institutions could be crumbs in the cupboard tomorrow, so being able to reach out to Hilary, if that day came, guarantees the library a future over the next several decades anyway.

Recently the Little Rock airport long known as Adams Field was renamed after Bill and Hilary Clinton.  Stadiums everywhere get corporations to pay millions over many years to name publicly built and operated buildings after themselves, so it could have been worse and named the Walmart Children’s Library or some such and the neighborhood’s parking lot future would have abutted another superstore someday.

In Louisiana, there is a law barring using the name of a live person for a building owing to a little problem some years ago where a building named for a former governor suffered some embarrassment when he went to jail for misuse of public funds.  In the new world, the tax payers pay the bills, corporations and private individuals collect the glory, and the possible bankruptcy and need for a bailout is all part of smart contingency planning.

Meanwhile this spaceship library is planted in the alien soil of a lower income African-American community in just other American city overjoyed at any creation of public space.  It will be interesting to see whether naming these bricks and sticks after Hilary Clinton will bring the community some benefits as well as keeping a new Medici in waiting.

Library's Roberts getting ACO Award from Jim Lynch
Library’s Roberts getting ACO Award from Jim Lynch