Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A group of writers is raising $150,000 to save the poet’s home from becoming another condo or coffeeshop.
If you’ve ever strolled right by the brownstone on 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that it once belonged to Langston Hughes. Aside from a small plaque, there’s scant indication that one of America’s most prolific poets of the Harlem Renaissance spent his last 20 years there.
The home was given landmark status in 1981, but is now covered with overgrown ivy and peeling paint. Its interior remains vacant and in disrepair. Yet, in a gentrifying neighborhood that’s seen a boom in trendy coffeeshops and that’s about to get its first Whole Foods, the property is estimated to be worth more than $3 million.
Developers have already begun to turn nearby brownstones into luxury condos. And Renée Watson, an award-winning young-adult novelist based in Harlem, can’t bear to see that happen to the home of one of her biggest inspirations.
“I’ve always said [Hughes’s] poetry was a mirror to my life,” she says. “Growing up as a black girl in the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t have a lot of art that reflected my life. [T]o read a poem where he talks about just everyday people in their everyday lives, it has helped me stay grounded in the stories that I want to tell, knowing that our stories matter.”
So Watson began fighting to save Hughes’s home. In late July, she launched her nonprofit, the I Too Arts Collective—named after a well-known Hughes poem calling for equality—and started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $150,000. That sum would cover a year’s worth of rent plus renovation costs.
At the time of this writing, she’s raised over $53,000, which is $13,000 more than what she needs to sign the lease. Fellow writers and artists have pitched in, donating signed books and illustrations to offer as rewards to donors. Watson says the owner of Hughes’s home has also showed her support by agreeing not to put the house on the market just yet.
To Watson, who’s lived in the neighborhood for the past 10 years, the space is valuable not only to artists but also to the black community. “I see it as a space to nurture future voices,” she says. “Langston left a legacy of poetry about people—our people—who have been marginalized and misunderstood. I think riding in that same vein and creating [space] for] our people to put on record their own history and dreams is a powerful thing.”
A group of musicians tried to save Hughes’s house in 2007 by turning it into a studio, but that project was never finished. If Watson’s project is successful, she says she has big plans. With help from the city, sponsors, and other organizations, she hopes to turn the property into a place for open-mic nights, author readings, art shows, and workshops for budding local talent. Further down the road, she hopes to start an artist-in-residence program, where visiting artists can stay right in Hughes’s home during their time in New York City.
Watson says the project has been on her mind for years, but she finally took action after returning from a recent book tour. "Coming back to Harlem and seeing all these new places right in my neighborhood, it was like, ‘Wow,’” she says. “I was just traveling for a little and it's like a new neighborhood. It just felt like, ‘Who am I waiting on?’”
It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate Harlem’s new look; the streets are safer and the coffeeshops have ultimately become her workspace. "It's the push-out that I’m not for,” Watson says. “The feeling of newness and change coming in—but not for the people who've been there, who’ve worked hard and wanted it for so long."
Watson’s views are shared by many. Writing in a op-ed piece for The New York Times, historian and author Michael Henry Adams bemoaned Harlem’s ongoing gentrification, which has leveled many historic buildings and pushed out its black residents:
It was painful to realize how even a kid could see in every new building, every historic renovation, every boutique clothing shop—indeed in every tree and every flower in every park improvement—not a life-enhancing benefit, but a harbinger of his own displacement.
In fact, it’s already happening. Rents are rising; historic buildings are coming down. The Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed, and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held, have all been demolished. Nightlife fixtures like Smalls’s Paradise and Lenox Lounge are gone.
Watson says she took a cue from the protagonists of her latest book, This Side of Home, about two sisters coming to terms with the changes to their once all-black neighborhood. One welcomes the change while the other is putting up a fight for the displaced.
"I can't be a writer and write about strong girls … who try to go out and change things and use their voices,” she says, “and then not do that myself."