Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A teenaged Hughes rented an attic room, where he cooked himself hot dogs and rice and wrote for his high school literary magazine.
It's a modest but substantial dwelling, a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath colonial built in 1890 at 2266 East 86th Street in Cleveland. Walking by, you might not even notice it.
But under the steeply pitched roof in the third-floor attic, high school-aged Langston Hughes rented a room between 1917 and 1919.
The milepost was in danger of demolition not long ago. The home, like many structures in this part of town, had been neglected and then abandoned. At one point it was condemned, despite its Cleveland landmark designation.
But now the space has been completely renovated by the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, a community housing organization, and put on the market for $85,000.
Instrumental in saving this piece of American history was Christopher Busta-Peck, a Cleveland librarian and historian dedicated to preserving the city's architectural heritage.
Busta-Peck began researching Hughes's life in the Fairfax neighborhood as part of his efforts to help local children connect to the area's rich cultural heritage (Olympic hero Jesse Owens lived not far away). He found the Hughes house particularly meaningful for the role it played in the writer's development.
Hughes rented the 5-by-20 foot room in his junior year of high school, when his mother left town to live with his stepfather in Chicago. According to Busta-Peck, who got much useful information from Arnold Rampersad's biography, Hughes paid rent with the money he earned working at a department store.
At the time, Hughes wrote for the school's literary magazine and developed a friendship with Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, social activists and arts promoters who ran the famed Karamu settlement house, where Hughes taught art classes and where some of his plays were later produced.
The historical record doesn’t have much to say about whether Hughes's time in Cleveland. All he wrote about the place was a snippet in his autobiography The Big Sea, quoted by Busta-Peck on his blog:
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.
Busta-Peck says he pushed for preservation of the house because he believes a living sense of history is tied to real-world objects. "For me it’s all about the physical connection," he says. "My background is in studio art. I’m all about showing the story. For that it really helps to have the actual stuff. I always ask, would you rather look at a photograph of Babe Ruth’s baseball bat, or the bat itself?"
For him, the preservation of this little piece of a great artist's life has bigger implications. "What I really love is it’s not just this house," he says. "It’s that historic preservation is becoming part of the dialogue here in Cleveland. Our biggest resource is the built environment. It’s one of our major assets and we should take advantage of it."
With any luck, the house where Hughes once read himself to sleep will soon be home to someone else.