Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Who am I? I am a librarian and artist living in the Onaway neighborhood of Shaker Heights with my wife, one year old son, a cat, and three turtles. I've worked as a youth services librarian at the Hough Branch of Cleveland Public Library for a little more than a year. (Update: July, 2010: now at the Langston Hughes branch of Cleveland Public Library.) Before this, I spent three years as a librarian in the African American Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the public library serving Baltimore, Maryland. I worked as a library assistant at Wickliffe Public Library while working on a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University, which I completed in 2005. While in grad school, I transferred and began the initial processing of the Performance Art Festival archives, a collection that I believe will come to be seen as the single most important archival collection in the fine arts for the 1990s. I earned a B.A. in studio art from Hiram College in 2003.
As a librarian, my interests are many and varied. I could be happy in just about any subject area. Pressed for specifics, I'd cite art, history, rare books, special collections. My free time is divided between my son and working on my house, at least in theory.
How did I get involved with Cleveland Area History? It began with a summer daycamp visiting the library for programming. An interest had been expressed in topics related to African American history. I quickly learned that local history programs worked well. Many of the kids hadn't been outside the neighborhood much, if at all, so stories about the things that happened on the other side of the city or in other parts of northeast Ohio might as well have been on the other side of the country. When I talked about things that happened right there in their neighborhoods, there was a glint of recognition. There was interest.
The first significant program involved two African American writers, Charles W. Chesnutt and Langston Hughes. One important element in any program for children is strong visuals. I knew the Cleveland Public Library had an excellent collection of photographs of Chesnutt, his family, and his Cleveland residences, but I didn't have anything for Hughes.
Colleagues at the Main Library were able to provide me a list of addresses where Hughes had lived in Cleveland, thanks to Arnold Rampersad's authoritative biography. I learned that of the five sites, all but two had been demolished. One was where Hughes had lived during one of the most formative times in his life, his sophomore and junior years of high school. It was at this time that he really began to write, as well as to forge important connections. The property had been foreclosed upon and sold at sherriff's sale. It was sitting vacant. If action wasn't taken, the house would eventually be broken into and vandalized. Water get in, and the house would come to be seen as beyond repair. Before long, it would succumb to the bulldozer.
After a while of trying to convince others to save the house, I contacted a friend at the Plain Dealer, which ran a nice story on the house. This led to the eventual purchase of the house by Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp., which will rehab it and offer it to a low to moderate income family. All Things Considered ran a piece celebrating our efforts.
My programs were successful in part because local history isn't done well in the schools or in the communities. People knew Hughes lived in the area, but not exactly where. I knew that there had to be plenty of other important old buildings and sites waiting to be identified.
On a trip to Buffalo ReUse, an amazing architectural salvage yard and model we might do well to follow, I brought up the idea of a Cleveland history blog with Christine Borne Nickras. Though I blathered about it the whole way there and back, she didn't run away screaming. Two like-minded idiots on a mission.
Why do I think Cleveland Area History needs to exist? I hope to change the way we percieve local history. I want to find better ways to share existing resources and present new ones. There are plenty of wonderful buildings in both the city and the suburbs that need our attention and that can be had for a song. I want to see more important old houses saved and fewer demolished. The pent up demand for local history information is clear. I see this as the venue through which it can be channeled.