‘When you make people feel comfortable, you create more than a library.’Resilient Neighborhoods: Detroit Public Library’s Parkman Branch

The best public libraries have the power to change lives and champion community. Since 1931, Detroit Public Library’s Parkman Branch, an iconic three-level Tudor-style building nestled in the city's Hope Village neighborhood, has been doing just that. 

About 100-125 people benefit from Parkman's holdings and programming every day – making it only second in popularity to the city's main branch.

"Libraries are cool because there's so many things only available in certain elitist circumstances," says retired cardiologist Felix Rogers. "Places like the Detroit Institute of Arts, a library like Parkman, those types of places can really level the playing field."

Rogers is also part of HOPE Village Revitalization, a community development organization committed to revitalizing the neighborhood. He recalls a sense of awe when he first visited Parkman (located at 1766 Oakman Blvd.) to present a community health talk, about five years ago. 

"I thought, 'what an elegant and grand building,'" Rogers says. "Of course, being around so long, it's showing signs of wear, but it's truly impressive."

Bearing a resemblance to an old church in some areas, the long-treasured building is big and beautiful. And brimming with a bit of something for everyone: stairs between floors that are worth the climb to the literary pleasures beyond, a "bay" area perfect for presentations and workshops, windows for days, and a hospitable computer hub, to name a few. Remodeling was done in 2011, to bring the branch, named after American historian Francis Parkman, to its present shine.

"The building is great, and then you meet the people who work there. They're even better," Rogers says. "They always want to help and are making the community stronger."

On any given day, Parkman's guests might seek assistance from a friendly librarian or from branch manager Tracy Massey. Massey has held a number of positions in the library system, but taking on Parkman, just after the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the most "magical" so far.

"My story has kind of come full circle because I grew up right in this very community. This used to be my home branch when I was a little girl," she reveals. "I loved coming to this library. I can still hear my brother yelling, 'c'mon, let's go!'"

As a "voracious" reader, she was always reluctant to leave. Massey remembers her younger self, happily walking all the way up to the third floor to watch films with family and friends. (Fun fact: There's 21 stairs to the second floor, and another 15 to the third floor.)

"It was the 1970s, so the movies were shown on a projector, probably reel-to-reel," she says. "Today there are meeting rooms up there and a full auditorium. It's still a hot spot."

The Parkman Branch, she underscores, is also a (vital) hotspot in extreme weather conditions. The City of Detroit has designated the branch as a warming center and a respite location to provide relief from the cold. On extremely hot days, it's a place to beat the heat.

In any type of weather, Parkman's most valued assets are its computers and technology education programs. Massey confides that beyond using the internet for pleasure, many patrons count on the branch's computers to print out essential documents, from job intake forms, to things like car purchase agreements given to them on flash drives.

When Parkman patron and workshop presenter Gwedolyn Lewis once found herself confounded by computer difficulties, she received help from a Parkman staffer who spent a lot of time with her. While that might seem an ordinary occurrence to most people, for Lewis – a professional storyteller who has presented at the library four times, and who happens to be a librarian herself – the show of personal care was something she's never forgotten.

"I will tell you this, those people know how to service their community," Lewis says. "They go above and beyond. Most importantly, they never make anyone feel stupid for seeking knowledge or getting help."

Lewis feels that type of care, attention and respect is what resonates with Parkman library-goers.

"When you make people feel comfortable like that, you create more than a library," Lewis says. "A library like that is a safe place for kids when they're wandering the streets, it's a place to get information about life challenges, it's a place that provides stability."

Rogers, who is currently presenting health workshops on Tuesdays, agrees. He explains that the community around the library consists of 95% of people who self-identify as Black, and at least 50% of the population is below the poverty line. His upcoming public health conversations have been growing alongside the community's requests.

"They want to know about adverse childhood experiences. What are the long-term effects of having bad things happen to you in childhood," Rogers says. "Adverse events happening during childhood probably affects 60-70% of Hope Village residents."

Massey highlights that library cards and participation in library programming is free. Currently, their book club is reading The Godfather, and there is a crochet group and a Lego group, among others. Childrens' story times are alway a smash, and some youth head to the library to take complimentary violin lessons provided by Detroit Suzuki Academy.

"Oh, and don't forget we have books," she jokes. "That's important, too."

What book might Massey recommend for someone wanting to understand the magic of Parkman? It would be Library Girl: How Nancy Pearl Became America's Most Celebrated Librarian.

"Nancy Pearl is the only librarian to ever have her own action figure, and this was her childhood home branch before she became famous," Massey says. "Look her up. Or come visit, I'll tell you more."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series examining how Detroit residents and community development organizations work together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from The Kresge Foundation.
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