The Process of Writing About Your Childhood Library

Cover of Midwest Architecture JourneysHow do you properly write about the Midwest? Since 2016, the Midwest and the Rust Belt are often lumped together as an area some people refer to as “Trump Country,” an anonymous area filled with diners of people who cling to guns and Bibles. There is nothing remotely interesting, other than possibly Chicago, and an article about how an area previously dismissed by coastal newspapers is up-and-coming because of places that will look good on Instagram. Belt Publishing, a small press in Cleveland, OH, was started in 2013 with the purpose of publishing the work and voices of those from the Midwest, Rust Belt, and elsewhere.

Midwest Architecture Journeys, released in October 2019 from Belt Publishing, examines a diverse range of spaces that would possibly be overlooked in a survey of the buildings of the Midwest. Among the topics covered in the book are the Cahokia Mounds in southern Illinois, flea markets, Lillian Leenhouts’s work in Milwaukee, Fermilab, public housing towers, mausoleums, Iowa rest areas, parking lots in Flint, and a post office that became a public library in Waterloo, Iowa. The Waterloo Public Library is the subject of a piece I contributed to the book, “Please Return Again.”

The Waterloo Public Library was initially built in 1938 as the post office for the city of Waterloo. In the building are two murals painted by Edgar Britton, who had studied under Grant Wood, as part of the Works Progress Administration program. In 1977, the Waterloo Public Library said it needed a larger building to house the libraries and hopefully merge the east and west branches into one branch (Worth noting: Waterloo is incredibly segregated). In 1979, the post office relocated and the library moved in.

Despite growing up in Waverly — 30 minutes north of Waterloo — and Cedar Falls — directly west of Waterloo — my childhood library was the Waterloo Public Library. It was a building that satisfied my endless curiosity on every topic and entertained me through books and films. I always admired the building, but it was not what I initially considered pitching for the book. When the call for submissions was posted, I intended on pitching a piece in which I would write about visiting every supper club in Wisconsin with my mother, who grew up in Wisconsin. The problem with that idea was that I was living in New York City in 2017, which is when the call for submissions was posted online. I needed to come up with an idea that would require minimal travelling. I decided on the Waterloo Public Library because it felt like a building that had enough unique architectural features, particularly the murals, that most people would never consider writing about because it’s a library in Iowa.

I had initially wanted to write more about the history of the library with personal observations, but I was unable to travel to Iowa and the libraries in New York City were deeply unhelpful with research. The piece I submitted was very close to the final piece, which is a personal essay examining the ways the library shifts and changes as I get older. I also decided to address things I became more aware of as I got older, such as the Bosnian population in Waterloo, and the very real threat of ICE raids on businesses in Iowa when I was in high school. At one point, I bring up how ICE was detaining undocumented immigrants at the National Cattle Congress, which is depicted in an idyllic manner in one of Britton’s murals at the library.

The piece also served for me as a way of trying to reconcile with the fact I had left Iowa for college and have only visited once since going off to college. There has been talk of how a “brain drain” has affected voter trends in certain Midwestern states and for me, I often feel as though I often contributed to it. I also wrote it while living in New York City, a city I have very mixed feelings on, which I will happily discuss over tea in the Zilber Forum. While I was living there, I found myself frequently defending where I am from. To many Millennial New Yorkers, the Midwest is a suffocating place to escape, a thing to be ashamed of. I would even stand in the basements of comedy clubs, hearing lousy comedians attack the Midwest as a place that hates LGBTQ people and loves racists and fascists. The Midwest described was not one I knew. In fact, I found myself more at ease in Midwestern areas than in New York City. Writing about a building I hold dear was a way of me saying: “This is who I am and I am not ashamed to come from Iowa.”

The process of contributing to this book started in 2017, long before I even considered applying to law school. For the book to be published during the first semester of law school was simultaneously surreal and stressful. As I got emails from Zach Mortice, the editor, and staff at Belt Publishing, it was something in the distance. As press started ramping up for the book and it ended up on Fall Book lists for the Chicago Tribune and other publications, it suddenly became very real. In addition to adjusting to law school and reading cases, I also had to put together lists of media people to reach out to, as well as promote the book on Twitter. The particularly odd experience was dashing from my Criminal Law class one afternoon to go to the book release in Chicago, where I had to very quickly describe my piece and not use the phrase, “I’m so sorry it’s sad.”

I am incredibly honored to have the experience to write about how my own personal history affects the way I view architecture. The confluence of contributing to a wonderful book that is published the same semester I start law school is a bizarre and delightful experience. In the next post, I will discuss some aspects of policy and other sites of note discussed in the book.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Patricia Ryan

    Beautifully written and important post. I have similarly defended the Midwest while living on each coast for the past 30 years. For a column with a similar message, read David Zurawik, media critic for the Baltimore Sun, who is from West Allis and expresses similar sentiments. There is also a beautiful essay by Garrison Keillor which is a tribute to the Midwest.

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