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The Fight to Preserve Langston Hughes’ Harlem Home From Gentrification

A new kind of Harlem renaissance is threatening the home of one of America’s greatest poets

Langston Hughes' Harlem brownstone: Cultural remnant or great place for a Starbucks? (Americasroof (Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

Langston Hughes and Harlem went together like peanut butter and jelly—the titan of American literature fueled and was fueled by the neighborhood, producing timeless jazz poetry, novels and books that immortalized the Harlem Renaissance. But recently, gentrification has threatened the Harlem home where Hughes lived and worked in the decades before his death. Now, as Heather Long writes for CNN Money, a high-stakes crowd-funding campaign is fighting to preserve his home for future generations. 

Renée Watson, a Harlem-area writer, was horrified to learn that Hughes’ home on East 127th street in Harlem, which he occupied during the 1950s and 1960s, was sitting empty and unoccupied, Long reports. The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. But the list, though intended to spread awareness of historic homes, does not preserve or restrict the use of such places. That meant there was nothing stopping Hughes' home from falling into decay. 

Preserving his Harlem residence matters because since Hughes lived in so many apartments and dwellings, the 1860s Harlem brownstone rowhouse he lived in for the last decades of his life is the closest historians and fans have to a tangible monument to the man. While Hughes was born in Missouri and spent time abroad, he called Harlem home throughout much of his life. And much of his creative output—from his writing about race relations to poems inspired by the jazz and blues forms that African-American artists explored in the borough—was inspired by or about the borough.

But a new Harlem renaissance, one characterized by skyrocketing real estate prices and developers who swoop in only to gut and demolish historic homes, threatens the remnants of his physical Harlem legacy.

In 2007, a group of artists turned the building into a performing arts space, but the project eventually failed. When Watson learned that the house, which is now valued at over $3 million according to Long, had previously been for sale, she knew it was time to act. Long reports that she got in touch with the owner and formed a non-profit, the I, Too Arts Collective, to fund renting and restoring the space with the aim of an eventual Hughes-themed cultural center. 

Will Watson and her supporters succeed? Though the campaign is gaining steam, its still have a ways to go—currently, the campaign had raised a little over $66,000 of its $150,000 goal. And time is of the essence: Every day that the home remains unoccupied, the gentrification that is slowly paving over East Harlem’s untold stories and historical heart creeps in on the historic home.

Given that other historic homes of noteworthy African-American authors, like Maya Angelou’s $4.08 million brownstone, are changing hands all the time, there’s not a moment to lose. But if the center comes to be and Hughes’ home is preserved for future generations, it will be nothing short of poetic justice for a figure whose historical influence goes far beyond his favorite neighborhood.

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