Saving Langston Hughes' Boyhood Home

fromWKSU

The housing foreclosure crisis nearly took with it a piece of U.S. history — the teenage home of famed African-American poet Langston Hughes. But those who were key to saving the Ohio house do not want to turn it into a museum. Instead, they want to transform the decrepit property into a livable home in Cleveland's urban core — with a garden that celebrates the life and work of Hughes.

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The foreclosure crisis nearly destroyed a piece of U.S. history, a home in Cleveland where poet Langston Hughes rented a room. The house was ultimately saved, but the people who saved it do not want to make it into a museum. They want to transform the blighted property back into a livable home.

From member station WKSU, Amanda Rabinowitz reports.

AMANDA RABINOWITZ: As a 16-year-old, poet Langston Hughes rented a small attic in what was considered one of the first upper middle class black neighborhoods in inner-city Cleveland. He described it as enlightened and an inspiration for his first published writings in his high school literary magazine. That was nearly a century before urban blight and the foreclosure crisis left many houses on this narrow street either boarded up or torn down.

(Soundbite of door opening)

RABINOWITZ: This abandoned, three-story frame house with a front porch and pine green carpeting was nearly demolished after it was sold at a sheriff's sale earlier this year. That's when Cleveland librarian Christopher Busta-Peck realized its historical significance.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BUSTA-PECK (Librarian, Cleveland Public Library): There's not much that's still left. And Langston Hughes was one of the most important writers of the 20th century. And he lived in Cleveland at this really formative point in his life.

RABINOWITZ: After moving around a lot as a child, Langston Hughes chose to stay behind in Cleveland in 1917, when his mother and stepfather left to find work in Chicago. He attended school, worked at a department store and rented this small attic, measuring 5 by 20 feet.

(Soundbite of walking in attic)

RABINOWITZ: It's a pretty small area up here.

Mr. BUSTA-PECK: Yes it is, which actually, I think, you know, really sort of contributed to him becoming who he was because he was in this awful little apartment. You know, I think that if he was in a little bit more comfortable circumstances, that he probably wouldn't have, you know, gotten out so much. He might not have quite developed as he did.

RABINOWITZ: At six feet tall, Busta-Peck's head nearly hits the attic ceiling. His breath is visible in front of his face as he stands in the cold room and reads an excerpt from Hughes' autobiography about living here.

Mr. BUSTA-PECK: I couldn't afford to eat in a restaurant. And 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.

RABINOWITZ: Hughes lived in five homes in Cleveland. Only two remain standing. But Cleveland State University African-American Studies Professor Regennia Williams says this upstairs apartment was where Hughes discovered he could write.

Professor REGENNIA WILLIAMS (African-American Studies, Cleveland State University): He spent a lot of time alone. And he has lots of time to himself to think. And he learned to appreciate, I think it's fair to say, the power of the written word, here in Cleveland, Ohio, in that attic room.

RABINOWITZ: The Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation is the Cleveland group working to spruce up this neighborhood. While it considered turning the house into a museum, spokesman Jay Gardner says the group wants to weave the house back in the fabric of the community.

Mr. JAY GARDNER (Spokesman, Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation): The country is peppered with houses that have historical significance that people live in, you know, and it becomes part of their pride of place.

RABINOWITZ: Busta-Peck says he's fine with the idea of a home rather than a museum.

Mr. BUSTA-PECK: My primary concern was just seeing that someone got into this house and, you know, took enough care of it, but it didn't just become another statistic to the bulldozer.

RABINOWITZ: But there will be a public monument to Langston Hughes here. Next to the house is an empty dirt lot, and Busta-Peck and Gardner say they plan to plant a Langston Hughes memorial garden there next spring.

For NPR News, I'm Amanda Rabinowitz.

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