By Vona Van Cleef

I am writing, once again, about what seems to be the City’s policy of cutting corners on El Paso’s cultural amenities and educational opportunities. For what? Spray parks? This seems a bit frivolous, doesn’t it, when libraries and museums are closed for want of funds?

The latest assault on culture and education came to light just this week. In the current copy of El Paso Inc., I saw a letter from Charles de Wetter about the City’s plan to take the first floor of the El Paso Art Museum for a Visitors and Convention Information Center. Please see the attached letter. Mr. de Wetter, board chair of the El Paso Museum of Art Foundation, is not happy about this, and I can certainly understand that. I hope this is merely a stop-gap effort while the Convention Center itself is being used for COVID-19 treatment, but I suspect that it isn’t, because it sounds very much like what is happening to our Main Library.

Plans seem to be continuing to cram a Mexican American Cultural Center into it, much to the displeasure of the proponents of the MACC and the people who use the library as a library. Today’s news, from Library Director Norma Martinez, is that Friends of the Library volunteers are being asked to box up the bookstore’s books and shelving and RENT a storage unit for the duration of the renovations. (I had understood that the renovations were scheduled for the original part of the library, but not for the addition. The bookstore is in the addition.)

This adds insult to injury, as the purpose of the bookstore is to raise funds for library programming, which the City mandates but for which the City cannot or will not pay. Would the City be interested in paying for, or reimbursing the FOL for, the cost of a storage unit? That would certainly help. Or does the City have personnel and trucks that could help with the packing up and transportation of the books and equipment to storage? That, too, would help, as most of the volunteers are “super seniors” with neck, back, hip, and knee problems that would probably be exacerbated by heavy lifting. And, believe me, book boxes are HEAVY! (And by the way, some of us super seniors are still waiting to be vaccinated!)

I wonder if members of City Council even know about these developments or if these are simply actions being taken by MCAD (a department that isn’t even listed on the City website) independently of any direction by Mayor Leeser and Council members.

In conclusion, I would like to quote a passage from Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities. He writes about priorities and says, “Mind comes before matter.”He says that “By now we often all share unthinkingly the prejudice that economic life is the foundational life and that all our cultural, educational, and even aesthetic life sits on top of it. Money is the base and culture the ornament.” Gopnik points out, however, that “it’s the educational, cultural, and even the aesthetic basis of our life that makes economic development possible and gives it form.”

Think about that, please, and reverse your priorities. Let the art museum be an art museum. Let the Abraham Chavez theater be remodeled to house the Mexican American Cultural Center. Let the library be a library. These are the foundations of what Gopnik calls “commonplace civilization,” without which you have a city built on sand. And a city built on sand, like a house built on sand, will crumble, regardless of how much money you spend on spray parks and sports venues.

Thank you, Vona Van Cleef, District 1 

Vona Van Cleef is the treasurer of the Friends of the El Paso Public Library (Main) Board.

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