The city has converted a cultural gem entrusted to the entire city into an exclusive outlet that serves only the few.
[For] the city, the Apple Carnegie Library represents a failure of imagination. 1 By leasing the Carnegie Library building to Apple, the city has turned over a prominent cultural asset to an exclusive use: a tech enclave whose products are out of reach for many residents. And not just the 1903 marble building, but also several acres of urban park in the form of Mt. Vernon Square. The arguments in favor of the Apple Carnegie Library don’t justify what should always be an option of last resort—the privatization of public space.
- 1. Other ideas for the Carnegie site were always feasible. In recent years, the city has juggled competing cultural proposals for another historic building, the Adolf Cluss–designed Franklin School. A plan by a prominent local businessman and developer to turn it into a contemporary art kunsthalle was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray. But when Mayor Muriel Bowser arrived in office in 2015, she quickly scrapped that agreement, opening up the building to proposals to repurpose it as a tech hub or a boutique luxury hotel.
“Despite her campaign promise to celebrate and foster the ‘creative economy,’ only money matters; despite her commitment to find private partners to help the city’s children learn about the arts, she scorns one of the best proposals in years to do just that,” wrote Philip Kennicott, critic for The Washington Post, at the time. “Why? Because the city thinks it can harvest more money by turning the Franklin School over to commercial developers.”
In the end, the city signed a lease for a museum of linguistics at the Franklin School (a decision that has wrecked the building’s historic interiors, but no matter). One takeaway from this capricious episode: Philanthropists are willing to do the capital fundraising and board development work necessary to keep cultural assets public.
But cultural philanthropists have rarely had a strong partner in the city.