Column #014. First published in the St. Cloud Times Sep. 23, 2008
September has been a banner month. On Sept. 6, the Paramount Theatre and Visual Arts Center marked the 10th anniversary of its renovation. Just three days ago, the new St. Cloud Public Library had its grand opening.
Both these occasions celebrate big thinking, bold acting, and give substance to St. Cloud's recent LivCom Award as one of the world's two most livable cities of 20,000-75,000 population. (The other is Kladno, Czech Republic.)
The Paramount and the library are monuments not only to big thinking and bold acting, but to persistence, to the tenacity of civic leaders who realized that while it is always easier to say "no," especially when money is involved, the long-run cost of missed opportunities mocks our image of ourselves as innovative, future-oriented people.
Sometimes the best way to serve the future is to preserve the past. The Paramount, originally built in 1921, was old, in disrepair and had been damaged by fire. The region had several venues for live performance, and people were increasingly getting their entertainment via television or at the multiscreen cineplexes. It would have been logical to raze the Paramount and build something more commercially up-to-date.
The most striking thing I heard at the Paramount's gala birthday party was the figure 10 — not the 10 years since it opened, but the 10 prior years during which the plans were made and the renovation done.
I'm sure there were moments when the civic volunteers trying to make it happen wondered if it was worth all the hassle. Yet their mission, to return the Paramount to its rightful place as the cultural centerpiece of downtown St. Cloud and to provide "opportunities for artistic production, creative exploration, arts education and the enjoyment of the arts for everyone in Central Minnesota," inspired them to persevere.
The Paramount's birthday put me in mind of Václav Havel, the Czech playwright who, shortly after he was freed from prison, was elected president of his country. Havel has written, "Theatre is an art form so social that, more than any other art form, it depends on having a public existence, and that means it is at the mercy of cultural conditions."
How lucky we are that our cultural conditions include people who wouldn't let the Paramount die!
Sometimes the best way to serve the future is to start fresh. Advances in technology have revolutionized the way we get information, but there is no substitute for books, and libraries are democracy in action — all are welcome, and everyone has access to books and the Internet.
The new St. Cloud Public Library is truly state-of-the-art, not only in its equipment but also in its provision of gathering and programming space where people can come together and connect to new ideas.
As a connecting point for people and information and ideas, the new library triggered a memory. Among the most unforgettable scenes in "The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956," the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's history of the Soviet labor camps, published in 1974, is his account of the library in Moscow's notorious Lubyanka Prison.
He marvels at the irony that State Security, which had systematically censored all other libraries in the country, overlooked this one. Solzhenitsyn and the other inmates each got a new book every 10 days, unless the authorities became suspicious that the returned volumes were being used for communication.
What I have never forgotten is Solzhenitsyn's reminiscence of the effect of books in that most hellish of surroundings. "It sometimes happened that a single phrase would get you going and drive you to pace from window to door, from door to window. And you would want to show somebody what you had read and explain what it implied, and then an argument would get started."
A seminar in the Lubyanka!
Theatre and library: Havel and Solzhenitsyn, who saw up close and personal some of the worst totalitarianism can do, teach us these institutions are pillars of a free, vibrant society.
We owe thanks to all who saved the Paramount and built the library. They exemplify a trait of this area that earned another LivCom Gold Award: "Planning for the Future." Big thinking, bold acting — we need to keep at it.