Tuesday, August 31, 1999

City's OK for library sign long overdue

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is just a little story about a big problem. A cautionary tale, you might say.

        Two years ago, the directors of the Mercantile Library requested permission from the city of Cincinnati to erect a historic marker. They did not ask for money. They did not ask for a tax abatement. They did not ask for the services of city workers.

        They just wanted official approval to bestow a gift, a handsome sign at 414 Walnut St., site of the 164-year-old library. Not a billboard. Not some gaudy four-color logo. It would be a dignified reminder of our impressive literary history.

        The city said no.

Made of stern stuff
        “The Engineering Department objects to the abovementioned marker,” reads a letter from City Engineer Prem Garg. “It appears that the Mercantile Library does not appear on the local register of historic buildings.” What that has to do with anything, Mr. Garg did not explain. But it was clear the city would not smile on this particular enterprise.

        Myself, I might have dumped this in the “Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face” file and used the $2,000 to buy more books. But Mercantile Librarians are made of stern stuff. When the first two Mercantile Library buildings burned — in 1845 and 1869 — not a single book was lost. Members ran into the burning buildings and saved them.

        What are the qualifications for membership? I ask the library's CEO, Albert Pyle, who refuses to call himself anything fancier than “your librarian.” Asbestos mittens?

        “You must give us $45 and promise not to steal any of our books.” Not that you would, but just in case you can't remember where you got it, each book is embossed with the library's logo. Always on page 21. “Tradition,” Mr. Pyle says briskly.

        Although the original name was the Young Men's Mercantile Library, women have been members for more than a century and account for more than half its membership.

        “Women at the library were granted suffrage in the late 1800s,” says Mark Pierce, assistant librarian and archivist. “Government did not catch up with us until 1920.”

        Government, if I may say so, is still lagging behind.

        After Mr. Garg's letter, Mr. Pyle wrote to the city manager:

        “The Library has more in mind than its own commemoration. One of the great differences between the city and its surrounding suburbs is Cincinnati's wealth of historic associations, sites that go unmarked and unnoticed. Philadelphia sees fit to mark prominently as many historic sites as possible, understanding that visitors and residents alike find the markers to be useful, educational and a source of pride.

        “There appears to be no problem with Philadelphian pedestrians wandering into the signs and injuring themselves, and no problem with vehicles driving up on the curb to demolish them. There is only the pleasant dilemma of tourists stopping to read and reflect.”

Jumping through hoops
        There followed a series of hurdles, festooned with red tape, as if the city bureaucracy was the only thing between us and a gang of hooligans who would insist on blabbing to the rest of the world about our glorious past.

        Our history — the site of Salmon P. Chase's law office, site of Ohio's first Abolitionist press, Mrs. Trollope's bazaar — is something that cannot be duplicated by upstart towns, no matter how many perquisites they are prepared to offer developers and institutions.

        But some of these upstart towns have a reputation for willingness to move at something greater than a snail's pace and with something better than grudging cooperation on projects even more complicated than a street sign. Say, an apartment building. Or a department store.

        The Mercantile Library was permitted Aug. 13 to erect its historic marker. Sheridan blue in steel and cast aluminum with gold lettering, it's a handsome gift.

        And it only took two years.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com