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Living in Superman's House

Mhari Saito

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Super House
(Mhari Saito)
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Superman was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

Or at least the concept of him was, and the house where a teenage boy dreamed up the "Man of Steel" still stands today.

The story goes that one hot summer night in 1934, 19-year-old Jerry Siegel couldn't sleep. He'd had an inspiration of a visitor from another planet possessing physical powers never before seen on Earth.

"Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive," goes the familiar line from countless comic books, radio shows and movies: "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"

Siegel's house is now owned by Jefferson and Hattie Gray. The African-American couple moved into it in 1983. They had no idea about its place in comic-book history. They liked the Glenville neighborhood where the house stood and decided that it was spacious enough for their growing family.

Then the city of Cleveland declared their house a historic landmark three years later. And fans, sometimes by the busload, started knocking on their door.

"We have all kinds of people come up on the porch when we're not here," 60-year-old Jefferson Gray says. "They take pictures and leave a note saying 'We've been by.'"

The house is no museum. But they have painted the outside blue and red, Superman's colors. Visitors lucky enough to find the Grays at home when they arrive tromp through their children's bedrooms. It's a tour the Grays have given dozens of times. Jerry Siegel's relatives visited from Florida once and told the Grays what they knew of the superhero's origins. Siegel's cousins lived in the house during the Great Depression.

"This was supposed to have been Jerry's room right here," Hattie says, standing outside a bedroom on the second floor.

"He did most of his writing from that room and in the attic," Jefferson adds.

Plaster is crumbling from the corners of Jerry Siegel's old bedroom. Jefferson leads me into a small space off the back of the room that looks like a closet, but it has a window that overlooks the backyard.

"He looked out the window all the time," Jefferson says of Siegel. He holds back the curtain. The window provides a view of a large tree in the back yard. Gray says it's only grown there since they moved in.

Standing in the small space, it's easy to imagine a kid sitting in here, looking out the window and dreaming fantastic tales.

"At nighttime," Jefferson Gray says, "when you are sitting here, you can see the sun, the moon and then the sun rising. It's a beautiful view."

At first Jerry Siegel and his friend Joel Shuster thought up an evil Superman. But it wasn't working. So on that hot night in 1934, Siegel changed his character into a hero from a dying planet, sent to live among us and do good, but always in secret.

After his sleepless night, Siegel ran the 11 blocks to Shuster's apartment. Siegel held drafts of a comic strip plot. Joel started to sketch out the story of the Man of Steel.

I'm amazed at how gracious the Grays are. It strikes me that most would get sick of fans knocking on their door, asking to see "Jerry's bedroom."

"No, not really," Jefferson Gray says. "Because if we could help somebody, we always did it."

The Grays have opened their home to strangers again and again without the assistance of any state or local aid. Jefferson Gray doesn't mind. He says owning Superman's house has introduced him to people he would have never otherwise met.

"Most of the time people get frightened about the neighborhood: 'I'm scared to go in that neighborhood,'" Gray imagines them thinking. "You have to deal with that all the time. But then when I see people come in with friendly faces... I've never heard one person say one bad thing since they've been coming over here."

Visitors and friends have turned the front porch of the Grays' home into a makeshift shrine decorated with Superman memorabilia. Jefferson Gray says he can't wait for the day when he can explain what it all means to his one-year-old grandson.

  • Music Bridge:
    Carbon Monoxide
    Artist: Colorlist
    CD: Lists (Still)


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  • By Leigh Goldie

    From Cleveland, OH, 09/11/2008

    I am a cousin of Joe Shuster's. Please check out www.ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com and help us raise money to fix up the house where Superman was born!

    By Marc Tyler Nobleman


    I've got a picture book on Siegel and Shuster coming out on 7/22 and on my blog I've posted photos of the long-ago- demolished building where JOE lived when he and Jerry created Superman: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2008/06/other-building-in-which-superman-was.html.

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