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In one Detroit neighborhood, a new community resource: a tool library

Every homeowner at least occasionally needs some tools. But they can be expensive and inaccessible for some people, especially in low-income communities.

A movement is afoot to help with that. Tool libraries are popping up in cities across the country.

Now, Detroit has one too.

“Like a book library, but for tools”

East Warren is the main commercial street through several neighborhoods on Detroit’s east side.

Tucked in among the beauty supply stores, pizza joints, and more than a few abandoned storefronts, is a solid red brick building. A garage door opens up onto the street. A sign out front reads East Warren Tool Library.

“How we like to introduce the tool library, we’re like a book library but for tools,” said Joshua Arntson, the tool library’s co-founder and director. “We have anywhere from push mowers to weed whips to wheelbarrows, we have shovels, we have screwdrivers, wrenches, power tools.”

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
East Warren Tool Library co-founder and director Joshua Arntson.

Arntson is with the Motor City Grounds Crew, a group devoted to maintaining Detroit’s parks and green spaces. He had visited tool libraries in other cities, and saw the need for one in Detroit. So he started looking for possible locations, and with the help of another group devoted to revitalizing the East Warren commercial corridor, landed on this spot.

“Tools can cost a lot of money,” Arntson said. “A lot of people, they want to do things. They want to remove blight, maintain their homes, maintain the properties around them. So we’re just able to give them the resources so they can do that.”

People can check out tools, after they sign up for an annual membership. The membership fee is set on a sliding scale based on income. Members can check out tools for up to a week. There are late fees, but the idea is to be open and accessible to the surrounding community.

Kimberly Canty lives in Morningside, one of those surrounding neighborhoods. She’s one of more than sixty people who’s already signed up for a membership with the tool library, which just opened up in July.

And Canty’s already making good use of it. She says she’s used library tools for several projects so far.

“One, I helped my neighbor. I’m working on my fence, I did some work in my basement with the tools, and in my yard and in my neighbor’s yard,” Canty said. “I was able to use the pole digger to help fix my fence, because my dog is a Houdini who keeps escaping.”

Canty calls this place “a blessing from the Lord.”

“Because everyone is able to use it,” she said. “It’s needed, and wanted, and it was just a great idea. It was brilliant, genius. I should have thought of it.”

Lending tools and teaching skills

The inside of the garage is as neat and well-stocked as any small home improvement store. In the back, there’s an open space where they hold free classes.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kimberly Canty is a Tool Library member and student in the home-building class.

On this day, there are eight people participating in a home-building class. George Highgate is the instructor. He’s divided them into teams of four. They’re going to disassemble and reassemble a wall—from studs to drywall, electrical, the whole thing.

Highgate says he’s taught lots of home improvement classes, but never in a place like this.

“I think it’s great,” Highgate said. “Without going to Home Depot, big box stories to borrow their tools. Because you need credit cards for those things. Here, you get a membership. Your word is your bond. And how many times you can say that now?”

Highgate calls over one of his students, Greta Williams. Williams has been helping her husband rehab Detroit homes for years, but says it’s always been in kind of a helper role.

“And it’s ok to be the helper, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve learned a lot,” Williams said. “[But] I wanted to know how much did I know, and to build up on that skill set that I’ve already built on with my husband.”

The East Warren Tool Library already has plans to offer other courses, like upholstering.

It’s drawn a lot of attention and interest from throughout the city. There’s already talk about replicating it in other Detroit neighborhoods.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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