Recently, the Baltimore Poe House and Museum revealed that the City of Baltimore cut all of their funding in July 2010. They have some dollars to keep running a bit longer, maybe until June 2012, but nothing is certain except the city has no plans to continue funding the site. The city has told the Poe House they must develop a plan for becoming a self-sufficient institution. Those of you familiar with my longstanding battle with Baltimore over the literary legacy of Edgar Allan Poe may think that this is the moment when I raise my arms and shout “I win!” But I’m not. The Baltimore Poe House needs to remain open and the way in which it is funded needs to continue.
Sign the petition, but just as importantly, pass the word about it. Email your friends. Post it on Facebook. Post it on Twitter. The budget for Baltimore has not yet passed, so if we raise enough ruckus, perhaps they will change their minds and keep funding the House.
Of course, it would be good for Baltimore Poe House to develop alternate sources of funding. But what do you think they’ve been doing for the past thirty years. All those birthday events and “Cask of Amontillado” wine tasting events and October shindigs have helped keep the Baltimore Poe House afloat. The bare bones budget for the House, currently funded by the City of Baltimore, just to pay one person and keep the doors open is $85,000. In a city budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, $85K is a drop in the bucket. That kind of outlay has zero effect on any other city services. Not to mention the work that has been accomplished by Jeff Jerome over the years that have brought tourist dollars into Maryland and Baltimore. Last year, according to Jerome, “The Poe House and Visit Baltimore received an award from the State of Maryland for bringing in print media advertising the equivalent of $1.9 million through the highly successful Nevermore 2009 publicity campaign.” Hmm, $1.9 mil. $85K budget. I think the $85K was pretty well spent. If the City of Baltimore was spending millions of dollars on operating their Poe House, I could understand them wanting to make some budget cuts. But when they’re only giving them enough to just survive AND they say they’re going to just cut all of it, I am flabbergasted. In what economic world does any of this make sense?
Now, Jeff Jerome and I have had our little battles over the years about literary history, but that doesn’t prevent me from seeing the kind of work he does is valuable to Poe’s continuing public reception. Jeff Jerome, misguided though he may be about the literary legacy of Poe (Hey Jeff, Poe’s a Philadelphia writer!), has nonetheless done an outstanding job for the past thirty years as caretaker of Poe’s Legacy in Baltimore. My fear would be that any NEW system of funding the Poe House would leave Jerome out in the cold. The Poe House in Baltimore needs to stay open and it needs to have Jeff Jerome continue in his position. If only because for thirty years this way has worked.
So why can’t the Poe House just find ways of making up that $85K? They are in a unique position. Plans that have allowed other sites, such as the Mark Twain House in Connecticut, would be extraordinarily difficult (read: impossible) in Baltimore. The Poe House is tiny, cramped and surrounded by a neglected neighborhood. It doesn’t get tens of thousands of visitors through its doors every year. It doesn’t have enough space for an adequate gift shop. It can’t host programs and events. It has survived because many years ago, the City of Baltimore decided it was worth spending a very small amount of money to keep it afloat. It’s worth even more now. Hopefully, some fat cats might be made aware of this situation and start some kind of endowment (don’t bet on it). But even then, that money needs to be replenished year after year. That’s why it makes sense for the city to cover the bare bones budget and then let the House do all it can to raise more money. If the House has to raise their own operating costs, they’ll be closing their doors in no time. For the Poe House to even think about making enough to cover their own costs, they’d have to double their size and hire more staff. They can’t do anything about their space and more staff just costs more and more money. We’re not talking about a business here. We’re talking about a literary historical landmark. How many readers do you think are left in this country who actually give a shit about our literary history? Answer: not enough to support a literary house in a bad neighborhood.
Shutter the Poe House now and in a few years, the talk will be, “Why even have it at all? Just tear the building down. We already have the grave at Westminster. Why do we need the house?” I can talk and write about literary history all I want. I can give talks to halls packed to the doors. But that’s all just talk. I grew up in a city, Philadelphia, where we have been nurtured by the idea that the actual, physical places of history matter. Why do we need Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell? As long as we have the ideas they represent, why do we need their physical presence? Because if you can walk on the same streets and the same floors that our founders did, if you can touch a bell that represents our struggle, then you are in some way better connected to the legacy of your past. I feel the same way about our literary legacy. The Poe Houses in Philadelphia and Baltimore and NewYork and Richmond need to be preserved, so we can walk the same floors of a great American author, so maybe the blood, sweat and tears of his creative labors may be transferred to us.
So, it seems to me that the best scenario would be for Baltimore to continue giving the Poe House the pittance it already does. That’s why there is a petition. To convince the mayor that enough people care about the Poe House that it would create too much ill will to stop funding it. The more people who are outraged over this, the better chance the city of Baltimore will change their mind, continue funding and hope no notices it was a stupid idea to stop funding in the first place.
Of course, if Baltimore’s willing to concede, we can always dismantle the house and move it to Philly. Throw in the body and we definitely have a deal. But if you’re not willing to give up Poe, then keep the House open. I need Jeff Jerome. Who else can I fight without Jeff running the Poe House?
For updates check here, but also check out the Poe Bicentennial site. And here's what the Poe Society of Baltimore thinks about the issue, as well.