Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

After the Fire

In her commentary, Michel Martin weighs in on how some buildings — although old — are worth saving and rebuilding even after being gutted by fire.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Can I just tell you, every now and again when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary. And today, what I have on my mind is the loss of two trusted friends here in D.C. Actually, they're buildings. In a space of 12 hours, two separate fires caused serious damage to a historic food market on Capitol Hill called Eastern Market and a public library branch in a Georgetown neighborhood.

It's going to cost tens of millions of dollars to repair those buildings. D.C.'s new mayor, Adrian Fenty, says he's going to do what it takes, so we'll see. But you know how it is, a library in the richest part of town where everybody can surely afford a book and a funky un-air-conditioned market with 14 little stalls selling cheese and whatever in a city where there's no lack of supermarkets, at least in that part of town. I hope it happens but I won't be shocked if competing demands lead to different decisions.

Why am I telling you this? Why do you care? Well, let me tell you about those places. I don't know about you, but to me, public libraries are special places, I might argue close to sacred. How many immigrants learn to read for free? How many children struggle to their first Angelina Ballerinas and Thomas the Tank Engines in a public library, or learn to love books because of story time?

And a Georgetown library is, was, a cozy little place with a kids' reading room as well as treasures from the city's history, the real city, the one where people live, not the one that people visit. No offense. So there were records on the houses in the area, plus for news junkies like me, 18th-century newspapers. One of them reported a declaration of independence as a story. Good thing the reporter didn't miss the big story when he saw it.

Plus, Georgetown wasn't always the preferred neighborhood of the city's well heeled. It used to be a black working class neighborhood, workers who worked the canal used to live there. So it's fitting that one of the treasures saved from the fire, although damaged, was an 1840 portrait of a freed enslaved American. Anyway, the documents prove if there is any doubt that no one group has title to the nation's capital.

Eastern Market. It was built in 1873. And let me tell you, it smelled like it: no air conditioning in Washington, D.C. in the summer. It was like a big long barn and there were stalls inside where they sold stuff like fish and cheese and meat. Outside on the weekends, vendors could sell everything from produce to prints to jewelry. You get the picture.

I was just over there. I had to renew my press pass that let's me get into the Capitol building. So on the way back, I stopped to get some cheese and fruit and bread for our staff meeting.

Yeah, you can get cheese at Safeway, but is the lady behind the counter going to unwrap you some and shave you off a slice and ask you how you like it and what you have to go with it. You can get pancakes at a fast food restaurant, but is the lady behind the counter going to say, baby, what do you want, like your mom might on a Sunday morning and still keep the line moving like the lady behind the register at Market Lunch?

Plus, it was one of the few places in this diverse but not still particularly integrated city where you could see yuppie moms with $700 strollers and folk with food stamps and members of Congress and postal workers all lining up for their coffee and fresh flowers, all getting the same greeting, the same extra apple, the same just-for-you price.

Can I just tell you, I'm not big on nostalgia. It gets on my nerves when I go to a museum and I hear one of the mothers point out some mannequin with a big hoop dress on her daughter and ask, wouldn't you have liked to live then so you could wear pretty dresses like that? Oh, right. When you couldn't vote or on own property in your own name, and guess which one of us would have been washing that dress.

The present suits me just fine, thank you. But the fire reminded me that just because I don't want to live in the past doesn't mean I can't respect, acknowledge, cherish the graceful notes that come from the past. That fire reminded me that so many things in our disposable world are worth saving, even if they do stink in the summer heat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our broadcast for today. But remember, this program never really ends. The conversations continue online at npr.org/tellmemore.

So, are you the parent of an aspiring ballerina of color? Tell us about your experience. And what did you think about our first visit to the Barbershop? Jimi and the rest of the guys want to know what you are talking about between shapeups.

We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation at npr.org/tellmemore and click on our blog. And as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and to produce this program.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues