A Museum of One's Own

It's hard to imagine the two-story house on East 86th Street in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood ever becoming a tourist destination. Pizza crusts, empty bags of spicy potato chips, and wrapping papers litter the green carpet. Huge holes dot the walls where the fixtures have been ripped out. The back door is open. "People will spend all day trying to get 10 cents worth of copper," says Jay Gardner, the community-development director for the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, as he picks up an old grate and puts it across the door latch to prevent another break-in.

Yet Gardner is excited about the house's prospects. A week earlier, the development corporation purchased the property for $100 from the city of Cleveland and plans to spend $80,000 to $100,000 to restore it to its original condition and designate it a historic landmark. The house has a literary claim to fame: Langston Hughes lived here for about two years, starting in 1917, while he was in high school. He had moved to Cleveland shortly before with his mother, and when she left town he moved into this house, where he rented the attic room.

"The only thing I knew how to cook myself in the kitchen of the house where I roomed was rice, which I boiled to a paste. Rice and hot dogs, rice and hot dogs, every night for dinner. Then I read myself to sleep," he wrote in his autobiography.

This summer, when the Fairfax group discovered the Hughes connection to the foreclosed house on East 86th Street, they decided to buy it. Dreaming big, they may try to sell the house to someone who would open it up as a museum. As we walk through the living room Gardner points out the original woodwork on the banisters and moldings, still intact. He thinks a Langston Hughes museum might entice new residents to move to Fairfax as well as help "tie folks to the legacy of the neighborhood."

When Hughes lived in Fairfax, the neighborhood was home to assorted ethnic groups. Poles, Jews, Irish, Italians, and blacks lived side by side in houses pressed up close to each other on long blocks. Hughes attended the prestigious Central High School, Cleveland's first public high school (also John D. Rockefeller's alma mater). One of the few black students, Hughes was a big man on campus: He starred on the track and field team and edited the literary magazine. During these years, presumably in the attic rooms that are now empty and painted lime green, he began to write.

Then he left. Prospects for educated black men in Cleveland were thin, and he was not from the city, anyway. He returned briefly in the 1930s to help stage his plays at Karamu House. By then, Fairfax had become overwhelmingly black. As industry grew, so did the neighborhood; by the 1940s, it was home to 37,000 people.

Today it has 8,000 residents. Most are older, low- to moderate-income African American couples whose kids have moved out. Some houses on East 86th Street are abandoned with "No Copper Stay Out" spray-painted on their boarded-up doors while others are well maintained, with blooming mums out front. This checkerboard pattern, created by the loss of industry and subsequent drop in housing values, is a common sight in the city.

Fairfax Renaissance Development started a program last year to entice employees of the Cleveland Clinic and other nearby businesses to buy property. The clinic is Cleveland's largest employer, and many of its shiny buildings stand in Fairfax. (You can see one of them from the porch of the Hughes house.) But few employees have signed up for the housing program, according to Gardner, largely because the adjacent suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights are equally affordable and offer more goods and services.

"Being a community developer in Cleveland is a little like being a Browns fan," Gardner says, referring to the city's pathetic NFL team and its irrationally optimistic fans. "We may be 1 and 9, but it's not so bad," he jokes. "Selling a neighborhood is like marketing a product. A city or a neighborhood is a store and you have to sell things people want to buy or people won't come. We don't have enough appealing houses to sell."

We finish our tour of the Hughes house and Gardner and I decide to grab some coffee. But there's no coffee shop within walking distance. "Let's go to Cleveland Heights," he suggests, and we drive five minutes to Starbucks.

it is tempting to cheer the potential Langston Hughes museum in Fairfax as a development that would honor a writer, preserve the cultural legacy of the neighborhood, and bring in tourist dollars. But investing in writers' former homes is not a development tactic with a great track record. There are about 55 writers' houses open to the public in America. Most are owned by civic organizations, and many lose money. The small town of West Salem, Wisconsin, turned the childhood home of Hamlin Garland, a novelist who wrote fiction about hardworking farmers, into a museum. Garland was a big literary deal in the 1910s and 1920s, a Midwesterner who moved to New York and shook up the establishment, but today he mostly shows up as a stumper in The New York Times crossword. Despite attracting 700 visitors a year, the Garland house must rely on donations to remain operational.

Even thriving cities and neighborhoods have a hard time turning writers' homes into sustainable tourist draws. A recent attempt to establish a museum at Langston Hughes' former home in Harlem failed when the owners of the million-dollar-plus brownstone quarreled with tenants. And the past few years have taught us all the fundamental irrationality of real estate. Just as a literary classic can become pulp, a penthouse can become a vacant foreclosure. There are no sure bets.

Last year, at the peak of the housing crisis, the Edith Wharton House in Lenox, Massachusetts, and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, faced foreclosure. The Kate Chopin house in Cloutierville, Louisiana, burned down around the same time and was declared too costly to rebuild. Other house museums are limping by, their curators continually having to perform the same tasks all homeowners of aging houses do. These houses only grow older and, thus, more costly. Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, a unique for-profit institution, does not spend money to keep the house and its contents in historically authentic condition.

Because the museums are usually located in residential neighborhoods, getting people to stop by is a challenge. Even the well-located ones struggle. The Flannery O'Connor childhood home in tourist-friendly, historic-house-rich Savannah, Georgia, gets only a few visitors a day.

The neighborhoods that surround these house museums, including the former Hughes home in Fairfax, provide a snapshot of American demographic trends. Not surprisingly, many of our revered dead writers lived in the areas of the country that drew immigrants to agricultural and then industrial jobs -- areas that have been hit hard by economic changes. New York City would seem to be ground zero for literary tourism, but the only writer's house museum in the five boroughs is the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, in the Bronx, which is currently closed for renovations. Until a new wave of famous, city-dwelling authors die, writers' house museums will continue to be clustered east of the Mississippi. At least we can all look forward to one day taking the Dave Eggers home museum tour in San Francisco.

So although it seems churlish, even as a Cleveland civic booster and English professor I cannot get behind a fundraising campaign for the Hughes museum. I asked Gardner if Hughes was a well-known figure among modern-day Fairfax residents. He said that while some remember his connection to the artistic center Karamu House, most of the name recognition stems from the Renaissance Corporation's own promotions of the writer's Cleveland connection. What if we redirected our energy, I wondered, to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. How much would it cost to give every resident of Fairfax a book or every classroom a set of, say, Poetry for Young People? Not as much as the deferred maintenance on the house where Hughes briefly boarded.

As I toured the house on East 86th Street, I thought of Hughes' poem about dreams deferred, which, he writes, might "sag like a heavy load" or "stink like rotten meat" or, perhaps, explode. There is no single answer to the woes of the Rust Belt, and yes, you can buy a three-story house here for the same price as a bathroom in Manhattan. But cities' fortunes rise and fall -- even London was more populous in 1931 than it is today. No matter how much we value our literary legacy, a writer's house will not give Fairfax the product placement it needs to sell more inventory.

It may be time to stop thinking of restoring houses as the answer to depopulating cities and to start thinking about the advantages of less costly forms of development, like reading books. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. ... Build, therefore, your own world."

Huddled in that attic room eating rice and hot dogs, I suspect Hughes knew, too, that the world of the imagination offers more than property, more than the city.

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