Library of Lost Dreams

by on February 22, 2008 at 7:44 am in Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

Dutch, a kind of archaelogist of recent America, takes us through the abandoned Detroit School Book Depository.


This is a building where our deeply-troubled public school system once
stored its supplies, and then one day apparently walked away from it
all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged
by fires and the supplies that haven’t burned have been subjected to 20
years of Michigan weather. To walk around this building transcends the
sort of typical ruin-fetishism and "sadness" some get from a beautiful
abandoned building. This city’s school district is so impoverished that
students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework,
and many of its administrators are so corrupt that every few months the
newspapers have a field day with their scandals, sweetheart-deals, and
expensive trips made at the expense of a population of children who can
no longer rely on a public education to help lift them from the cycle
of violence and poverty that has made Detroit the most dangerous city
in America. To walk through this ruin, more than any other, I think, is
to obliquely experience the real tragedy of this city; not some
sentimental tragedy of brick and plaster, but one of people.

Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks,
art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen
tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used
in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it
charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Ailanthus altissima, the "ghetto palm" grows in a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been
looted. All that’s left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned
and untapped potential.

More pictures here.

1 oops February 22, 2008 at 8:18 am

pretty interesting. too sad. the chi trib ran a front page a year or so ago that talked about how parts of detroit are are being farmed now. urban land returning to ag use.

2 KDeRosa February 22, 2008 at 8:34 am

This city’s school district is so impoverished

According to Schoolmatters, the detroit school district spends $13,529 per student in 2005. This is about 30% more than the state average.

Impoverished, perhaps. But not for lack of money.

3 KDeRosa February 22, 2008 at 8:48 am

Because throwing money at the problem is the only thing they know how to successfully do. At least until the music finally stops.

4 Ned February 22, 2008 at 9:19 am

Detroit is full of interesting urban ruins. Here are some sites:

Actually, it’s hard to imagine a more wretched urban landscape – Berlin in 1945 probably looked better. Detroit has lost about half of its population and a greater percentage of its tax base. The only people left are those who can’t escape. Except for a few (heavily subsidized) bright spots like the new stadiums and, of course, the casinos, most of Detroit is a vast urban wasteland. The auto industry is moribund, the government, led by a truly outstanding mayor, totally corrupt, the schools controlled by greedy unions and incompetent bureaucrats. None of this is a surprise to anyone who lives in Michigan.

5 jorod February 22, 2008 at 9:43 am

The public education monopoly is one of the last Soviet-style bureacracies in existence in the world. Lenin is smiling.

6 Rich Berger February 22, 2008 at 10:00 am

Ah yes, let’s avert our eyes from the school disaster and find some “capitalists” to blame.

7 Michael Fisk February 22, 2008 at 10:12 am

And Mr. Huben (who, from his rhetoric, gives the impression of being a public school teacher… not that there’s anything wrong with it, it just tends to color the argument a bit) seems to so conveniently ignore about how little “capitalism” was going on in the auto industry, which sold its soul to Satan (er, the UAW) a long time ago. Hard to do business when the workers threaten to walk out every few seconds unless they get higher pay and better benefits. Also conveniently forgetting about the abandoning of private buildings largely due to issues of blight due to the city’s infrastructure and safety being so bad. No, wait… “bad” is being way too nice to describe what happened there.

And as to the argument about the Detroit students needing more “special services”: Keep in mind the rural districts pay far more in student transportation costs, and have, in many cases, absolutely unheard-of levels of economically disadvantaged students (sometimes as many as two-thirds of the students being enrolled in reduced-price or free school breakfast and lunch programs). Unemployment rates in some of the northern counties in Michigan (in particular Manistee, Benzie, and Lake) make Detroit look like an economic paradise in comparison.

The difference between libertarian theoretical visions and statist theoretical visions are that the latter have been attempted and failed, leaving the libertarians with no real-world success, but, at the same time, no blame for the failures of the past when government is seen as the panacea to society’s ills.

8 ideogenetic February 22, 2008 at 10:48 am

As I was reading this impulsive post, I kept wondering how public outcry never reached a crescendo over this state of the building. When the original author revealed it was actually private property, it all made sense.

Even a poorly informed public wouldn’t put up with stuff like that except in the face of serious social collapse. A city, when it is not corrupt, the people are informed (not lied to by politicians and their think tanks) and active in their own affairs, prevents public affairs from deteriorating to that degree. Unfortunately, the shift in economic rhetoric from responsible public affairs to unregulated private affairs has led to our current systemic crisis and economic deterioration.

9 aaron February 22, 2008 at 11:14 am

Beautiful. Very nice find. I wish I had the time and motivation to simply explore detroit, but I’ve lost my interest over the years.

KdeRosa, there’s a lot wrong with the article. Unless things have changes recently (with the high unempoloyment in MI, I’d imagine they have), Detroit isn’t the most dangerous city.

Not uncommon for detroit to buy things and sell them out the back door for pennies. Amazingly, most of the worst school districts/schools have the most money per student. Highland Park MI has the highest $ per student in the State, but the worst schools.

10 shecky February 22, 2008 at 11:34 am

But.. but… if that building hadn’t been part of the public education monopoly, it never would have burned in the first place.


11 jorod February 22, 2008 at 11:49 am

Cross Country: Restarting Michigan’s Economy

By David L. Littmann
978 words
The Wall Street Journal

(Copyright (c) 2007, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Midland, Michigan — Michigan’s state motto makes this confident claim: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you” (Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice). Indeed, no other state in the union boasts more beachfront property than the Wolverine State.

More important for much of the 20th century, Michigan was a model of prosperity, a magnet for human capital — attracting and retaining a critical mass of world-renowned engineers and entrepreneurs — and seemed destined to be an economic engine for the nation. But then came the 1970s and the state has been sputtering ever since. Today, a deep fog has settled over a once bright business climate.

…….Net out-migration from Michigan, according to the nation’s largest household moving company, has been occurring for 30 consecutive years. As of early 2007, the net out-migration of firms and population is so profound that some rental car companies in the state no longer allow one-way rentals. Their fear is they won’t find anyone to return the vehicles.

Another myth: that Michigan’s business climate ranks in the middle of the pack among the 50 states. This ignores the fact that Michigan’s private sector is contracting compared to the expanding tax bases of every other state.

……….The economic fog will lift when policies are enacted that make Michigan a good place to do business for newcomers as well as for existing firms. This won’t happen if the legislators in Lansing, the state capital — who advocate heavier tax burdens on the remaining taxpayers to subsidize or attract firms handpicked by government officials — get their way. These targeted subsidies simply redistribute scarce income. Nor is the governor, Jennifer Granholm, moving in the right direction. Her recent call to impose a 2% tax on most services is a nonstarter. But she’s also calling for a new tax on the estates of wealthy residents, giving those with the means an even more urgent reason to leave. Michigan’s slide will continue.

Two fundamental reforms are essential if the state is to make a comeback. Michigan was a formidable competitor prior to 1967, when the state had no personal income tax. Why not return to these days by abolishing the state’s 3.9% personal income tax and replace it with nothing? Even a slow phase-out of the tax will allow the state to vie for business, new jobs and private-sector investment with fast-growing Florida, Texas and the nearly half-dozen other states that do not levy an income tax. If Florida and Texas — two of the fastest growing states in the union — can survive without income taxes, Michigan can too.

Second, it’s time for Lansing to pass right-to-work legislation, which would allow workers to take a job without also being forced to join a union. If citizens can once again embrace the truth about competitive markets and adopt a welcoming attitude toward profit, the fog may yet break up, brightening our “pleasant peninsula.”

Mr. Littmann is an economist formerly with Comerica Bank and now with Mackinac Center in Midland, Mich

12 Peter February 22, 2008 at 1:07 pm

At least the Detroit School Book Depository has a less tragic history than its Texas counterpart.

When I was attending elementary school in Connecticut, in a building then probably 65 to 75 years old, a work crew found a long-forgotten storeroom with its door covered behind wall paneling. The room was filled with hundreds of textbooks ordered decades earlier and never used. As best could be determined – a difficult process as all the people originally involved likely were dead – the boxes containing the books had been put in the storeroom with the intention of using them in the next school year; due most likely to miscommunications and personnnel transfers, the room was thought to be unused and was boarded up.

13 Grant February 22, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Matty Moroun should be thanked for purchasing a completely and totally useless building in order to turn it towards productive uses. While I won’t deny the value some get in from viewing architectural ruins like this, I believe jobs and productivity are much more valuable in Detroit.

14 jdg February 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

“turn it towards productive uses” = turning a blind eye to vandalism and performing zero maintenance so he can eventually demolish it with the excuse “it’s too far gone to save.”

in fact, moroun has had a permit to demolish the albert kahn-designed book depository since 2001, he’s just too cheap to do it.

grant, you obviously know nothing about moroun or the current state of detroit/windsor politics. because of moroun’s obstructionism, the detroit metro area and the industries it supports are losing incredible amounts of money. no one will see a dime from any industry on those sites. my guess as to why he’s sitting on those properties is their proximity to the mouth of a train tunnel to Canada that has been proposed as an alternative truck border crossing to Moroun’s bridge monopoly. if Moroun can buy up enough land around the mouth of that tunnel, he can block any efforts by the groups who are trying to create another route to Canada that will allow more traffic, goods, and money into the region from Canada.

Also, Moroun was a huge supporter of Kwame Kilpatrick’s reelection campaign, and along with several other large corporate donors looking for quid pro quos, he can be blamed for the fact that the city of Detroit is stuck with that fat philandering idiot.

15 Grant February 22, 2008 at 7:24 pm


You’re right, I know nothing about Detroit. I thought you’d meant Moroun purchased the land to use it to sell services to trucking companies. Capitalists tend to buy resources in order to use them in more productive ways than they were in the past (at least insofar as markets are allowed to operate; though by your description of the collusion of business and government there may not be much of a market in this area). That if they don’t, they fail at capitalism.

If Moroun has purchased the land just to preserve his monopoly, then he is likely making a poor business decision. It is usually more profitable to rent the land to the would-be competitor than it is to block its use altogether. Although it sounds like the competitor would by the governments of the two cities, who could likely just use eminent domain.

At any rate, I don’t think its likely that the average citizen of Detroit cares very much about preserving abandoned buildings if they could be used for productive purposes. However, I suppose its always possible to raise the money to preserve and restore the building if there is demand for it.

Whatever the case, I don’t think anyone here knows what the hell is really going on with that property.

I agree with Eric, capitalists are rarely pro-market.

16 jdg February 22, 2008 at 7:46 pm

thanks for being so civil, grant. truth be told I’m out of my league here—I normally just write a dull personal blog for a very different audience. I’m afraid I’m far from some wonkish economist type and I was bluffing my way through some of that “free market capitalist” talk.

Moroun has a sweet deal with the bridge and he wants to preserve his monopoly and actually build a new bridge alongside it. the train station actually changed hands for $80,000 at some point—this for a 16-story office tower and a waiting room to rival grand central station’s in grandiosity. buffalo has a similar train station that was in a similar state, but its ownership passed to a preservationist non-profit, and now its future looks much brighter. I’m sure Moroun could hand the station itself over to a similar group and still keep whatever interest he has in the property to protect his monopoly.

one thing Moroun does do is rent the train station out to Michael Bay every few years to film big action movies. Both The Island and Transformers feature the building prominently, in the latter it was used in the scene where the protagonist runs with that orb thing up the stairs and fights the bad guy on the top.

17 Grant February 22, 2008 at 9:45 pm


Given the political connections one likely needs to build a private bridge connecting two nations, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his monopoly is due to political collusion and corruption. But those are some impressive buildings. At least they are being put to good use to some degree in Hollywood.

thehova, why all those buildings and things were not put to better use? The auto industry declined in America, but that sort of thing happens even without market and/or government failure. Generally other industries take the place of failing ones. Why do you think other businesses were not able to grow in Detroit while the auto industry declined?

18 Grant February 22, 2008 at 10:36 pm

thehova, I wasn’t trying to take a side on any ‘government vs. market’ battle in why Detroit has gone to hell. I’m just curious as to why it would. Generally you’d think businessmen would take advantage of cheap real estate price and the existing infrastructure. Of course, crime is a big issue; perhaps crime deters more development? Or perhaps the poverty came before the crime?

19 Alex Tabarrok February 22, 2008 at 11:28 pm

thehova, funny you should ask. In fact I initially planned this post in the context of a discussion of the chapter in Tim Harford’s book The Logic of Life that discusses the decline of cities like Detroit. Harford builds on Ed Glaeser’s paper on urban decline and housing initially called something like why does anyone still live in Detroit?

See here

and here for more relevant Glaeser papers


20 Jon Kay February 24, 2008 at 1:42 am

To make good new jobs in today’s world, you seem to need good universities. There are plenty of good jobs around Lansing and Ann Arbor.

To renew Detroit, I’d guess its leaders have to make some kind of deals to get better higher ed. I’ve lived in Baltimore, which has done much better in terms of the renewal game via great biotech and medical research jobs.

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