Take The Steps: Edgar Allen Poe and West Baltimore November 28th, 2012 News that the Edgar Allen Poe House in Baltimore has been vandalized has been upsetting some folks. And it’s easy to see why, and become indignant. But that is not my response, at least not directly . Below is an excerpt from a chapter of A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses on the three Poe houses (Bronx, Philadelphia and Baltimore) that explains why I am more upset about the Poe Houses, and the unchanging fact of American urban poverty, than I am about the graffiti on the door of the Poe House: …The Poe House in Baltimore is the house best associated with the popular image of Poe we enjoy today—the creepy master of spooky stories who was found dead of unknown circumstances on election day. It is also the one that most forces any visitor to confront the present when seeking out the past. An episode of the television series The Wire, set in the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Poe’s house is located, begins with a white tourist asking some guys on a stoop where he can find the Poe House. “Poe house? Look around you, every house ’round here is a po’ house,” they answer. The day I visited the West Baltimore Poe House on 203 Amity Street I was that white lady, driving around the streets in a rental car, slowing down to check for street names. The first time I drove by the house—which is open from noon to three Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays–I saw a paper taped to the door announcing that it had been “closed for emergency.” It was a Friday. I had flown to Baltimore for one day to see the house and was sick thinking it might be closed on Saturday, too. When I returned, after a brief detour to hang out in a grocery store parking lot filled with cop cars, the house had reopened. On the corner by the house was an old-timey lamppost. Across the street was an overgrown, abandoned lot surrounded by vacant row houses with “No Trespassing” sprayed in red on boards covering windows and doors. A cop in a patrol car was stationed nearby. The “closed” sign was now gone, revealing the permanent sign behind it. This one asked visitors not to give admission money until they got inside the house. It also requested that visitors not encourage panhandlers and that they refuse any solicitations. I rang the bell, and Jeff Jerome, the sole employee, opened the door. “Please stand over there,” he said, gesturing to the other side of the very small entry room. One institutional-looking chair sat by the wall. I stood next to it. Jerome asked the mother and son who had joined me outside, waiting for the house to open, if they would like to come in. They replied that they were still waiting for a friend, so he advised them to stay outside until she arrived. Then Jerome quickly closed the door and immediately launched into a well-rehearsed standard welcome spiel. It was a self-guided tour, he told me, and the brochure–copies of which were hanging on a nearby wall–had information I could read as I wandered through the house. There was a video on the second floor, he continued…. I paid my nominal admission fee and wandered about the tiny five-room house Poe lived in with about five other family members from 1832 to 1835. While residing in the house Poe wrote “MS Found in a Bottle,” which won him a $50 prize from a Baltimore newspaper for best short story. He also married Virginia here. But in 1835, his grandmother died, and since she had been paying the rent through her pension, the family had to move. When the house was built, the location was still quaintly pastoral. The house was almost torn down in 1941 so that the city could build the ironically named Poe Homes, a public housing project. But members of the Edgar Allan Poe Society forced the local housing authority to spare the site. In 1949, the Poe Society opened the house as a museum, and they ran it until the city took it over in the late 1970s. Jerome has been the house museum’s only employee since the day it reopened in 1979. Before he became the curator, Jerome was hired as a photographer to shoot the Poe grave. Jerome has been a Poe buff ever since he was twelve. He snuck into a theater to see the Vincent Price movie Tales of Terror, which was rated four bloody Xs, which meant no one under thirteen would be admitted. The movie led to his lifelong fascination with Poe. When the city decided to make the house a monument, he was the natural choice to run it. Jerome wrote the text for the fact sheet given to visitors. Just reading it gives you a sense of the place: Why does the Poe House have that “old” house smell? The Poe House is an old house and with the age comes the tell tale odor which only an old house has. Even with limited air conditioning this odor will appear and then vanish. It is most noticeable after it has been raining. Is the house haunted? Some people have strong feelings about “ghosts” and other related subjects. They are deeply offended by these claims due to religious beliefs. A historic site that claims to have had “ghostly” events also stands the chance of being accused of making up stories to bolster attendance. For these and other reasons the Poe House has a policy of not discussing supernatural events that may or may not have occurred during its past history. Any soft whispering that you may hear coming from no visible source is your imagination. What spooked me about the house was not this fear but the strong echo of poverty: the poverty of the Poe family when they lived here, and the poverty of the neighborhood today. I started exploring. I was tentative about where I tread, given the sign in the first display room. Under a glass display box sitting in the middle of the room was a sign that read: “CAUTION. Historic homes are fragile…The Poe House was not constructed for tourism…All the windows are off centered. Some are lopsided while others are recessed into the wall. Two rooms have floor’s [sic] that are not level. Don’t let your kids run around.” On the second floor was a small room with peeling plaster, an old lamp in the corner, and a window air conditioner held in place by cardboard. A dozen or so brown folding chairs were lined up against a wall. In the front of them was an old, faux-wood TV stand with a television that played the video Jerome had warned me about. The video was on a loop, and a fading sign told me the tape would automatically stop playing at 3:00. The film quality, as Jerome warned, was very poor: static-filled and crackly and snowy. … I got up from the moldy video room and climbed a set of tiny stairs and then up another, even tinier set of stairs, to the attic room. You cannot enter the room, as it is roped off, but you can look up from the stairwell at the underside of a bed frame and a table. There is something furtive about peeking your head from the stairs to the bottom of someone’s bed. I descended, slightly dizzy, and found Jerome. I congratulated him on a recent New York Times article that featured him. While we chatted, people rang the bell. He stopped talking to me, opened the door and asked them to stand on the other side of the room. Then he closed the door and gave them the exact same spiel he’d given me just minutes earlier. A typical Saturday sees about 50 visitors; roughly 5,000 people tour the house each year. As I hung out in the small entry room, which also doubles as Jerome’s workspace, an elderly man came in, breathless and sweating. It was a muggy and hot day in Baltimore— well into the nineties. The man, who I imagined to be a World War II vet, wore a khaki shirt and pants, a fanny pack around his waist, and a stiff baseball cap that sat high on his head. His armpits had huge sweat stains on them. He sat in the folding chair in the lobby to catch his breath. “I took the bus and got off when I saw the E. A. Poe sign on the street, but it’s a long walk from the bus,” the man said. “Well, those signs are for cars driving by, not walkers,” Jerome explained. “If you go to the website we let you know that.” The man sat, catching his breath. “I wake up dreaming about Edgar Allen Poe,” he said to neither of us in particular. “Sometimes he comes to me as I go about my day. And that old-time actor, what’s his name?” “Vincent Price?” Jerome said. “Yes, Vincent Price,” he responded. Then he pointed to a portrait on the wall. “That must be the sister, huh?” “No, it’s not. You can read the text below it,” Jerome stated…. The Poe houses map contemporary American urban poverty, East Coast style, from the Bronx to Philadelphia to West Baltimore. Because of their connection to Poe, houses that otherwise would have fallen apart are preserved and open to tourists. Visiting the Poe houses takes us to neighborhoods we might otherwise skip. All three are run by civic institutions—the federal government, a county, and a city—that never have enough money. Nor did Poe, always broke, never able to own a house, or stay in a rented house for long. We could have restored other Poe houses—he lived in many. Does the presence of all these houses signal his success as an American author or failure? And are these museums indicators of America’s economic growth and expansion since Poe’s death in 1849, or sure proof of our failures to better conditions for all those in need? It’s a double display of poverty–then, when the author was alive, and now. … The houses change but what remains are impoverished American cities. A visit to the Poe house in Baltimore, by the Poe Houses public housing project, drives that point home, again and again and again. comments Undine replied on December 4th, 2012. Very interesting take on the Poe Houses. I don’t recall anyone looking at them from that particular perspective. Minor point: Poe and Virginia Clemm were married in Richmond in May 1836, not when they were living in this Baltimore house. Setsuko Marasco replied on January 28th, 2013. M, as i suspect you of sincerity, let me remind you that it’s REPORTERS that are supposed to maintain objectivity and factuality. n n”Journalists” as well as minor political functionaries such as Wehner, ( are you not familiar with Wehner’s employment history?) are a different kettle of fish. n nHow in the world you could come to contentions and mistake this joint for a repository of objectivity is sorta …..scary. n n nWhen I first started reading contentions, the people providing the bulk of the content were jennifer Rubin, Abe Greenwald, jamie Kirchick and one other yutz whose name currently escapes me……these lunatics, all third-raters, are impossible to mistake for anyone within shouting distance of objectivity ….or competence. n nthankfully they’re all gone except for the most small-minded of them n n Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.