Awhile ago I went looking for the former home of Charles Chesnutt. Chesnutt was America’s first black professional author-for a short time, he made his living through his writing. He was the first African-American to publish a story in what was then, as now, one of preeminent literary magazines, The Atlantic. The magazine’s reputation-making editor, William Dean Howells, compared Chesnutt to Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev, and launched Chesnutt’s literary career. But Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition, which fictionalizes the 1898 Wilmington race riots, did not sit as well with the literati as did his early work, and Chesnutt had to return to making his living as a legal stenographer. He remained politically active in Cleveland, and in 1928 he was awarded the Springarm Medal by the NAACP for his “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America’s greatest cities.”
Chesnutt lived in a well-appointed house in a middle-class Cleveland neighborhood. A few minutes of googling was all it took to find out where that house was, thanks to the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Archives.
I assumed the block would look nothing it did when Chesnutt lived there (1899-1906). I knew that section of town had been struggling for some time, and, with the housing downturn, I imagined abandoned houses would outnumber lived-in ones. So I was not surprised when I turned onto 73rd Street and saw a row of boarded up brick duplexes with “No Copper Stay Out” spray painted on the doors.
What I saw next surprised me. Three newly built, vinyl sided houses lined the block past the boarded up ones. They sat primly, chrysanthemums blooming in front. The grass was freshly mowed, and the trees around them bloomed glorious yellow. Across the street was another pretty house with Halloween decorations out front.
Further up the block were lots filled with grass and more sparkling-leaved trees. The empty spaces filled with plant-life gave the block an oddly bucolic feel. I found a few more abandoned houses, too, but they had been carefully boarded up.
I found where Chesnutt’s house should have been, but then my literary trek ended. Someone tore the house down years ago. So I chatted up a resident, George Tuggle, about the seeming vibrancy of the block.
“Well, the block group is very active,” he told me. Tuggle and other residents of East 73rd Street, tired of the empty houses being squatted in by drug dealers and prostitutes, lobbied the City Council for 18 months to remove the five gigantic abandoned houses. In fall, 2008, they succeeded, and the houses were torn down.
The block group is supported by Weed and Seed, a federally funded community program. Their presence in the neighborhood is due to hard work by Burten, Bell, Carr, a community development corporation. Burten, Bell, Carr put up the new house, too. All the new houses on the block, completed in 2006, are still owned by the original buyers.
Later, I talked to the staff at Burten, Bell, Carr about honoring Charles Chesnutt, and we got to talking about a community garden in one of the newly created green spaces. So maybe a community garden glint in the eye can also be what foreclosure looks like.
–Anne Trubek (originally published in GOOD around the bottom of 2009)