In Harlem, Artists Want to Rewrite Gentrification

In Harlem, Artists Want to Rewrite Gentrification

Collaborative is working to save the place where Langston Hughes lived and wrote poetry.

A luxury rental building towers above other homes in East Harlem. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

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The gold and black and green paint on the steps and banister of 20 E. 127th Street in New York City’s Harlem is chipped. And the summer ivy died weeks ago, leaving skeletal branches along the three-story brownstone where Renaissance poet Langston Hughes once made his home.

Just a few doors east of there, however, a line of orange traffic markers block off the sidewalk and front of a building. Yellow caution tape hangs along the barriers and —reflecting the gentrification that is moving through the neighborhood — marks the onset of another construction project and, likely, another set of investors both willing and able to spend a few million dollars on their next home.

Real estate prices are rising, as they are in all five NYC boroughs, but East Harlem retains a sense of community. Hughes’ former street also houses the 19th-century gothic St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a vibrant local asset. Neighbors smile at each other and greet interlopers. Residents even stop to comment on the significance of Hughes’ home. A gentleman wearing a puffer vest and Yankees hat stops to offer that he went to the library to study Hughes’ rhythm when he wanted to rhyme more like Grandmaster Flash. The house is currently the focus of an artist-driven preservation bid, which, if successful, could help also maintain that community spirit.

The Hughes House has been empty for decades. Although designated a historical landmark on the National Register of Historic Places (a list administered by the National Parks Service) since 1982, it’s been on the market for private sale since as early as 2003, according to New York real estate website Street Easy. Since 2009, the asking price has already tripled — from around $1 million to $3 million.

Harlem resident and author Renée Watson and the I, Too, Arts Collective — named for Hughes’ 1945 poem “I, Too” — want to preserve the poet’s home and convert the space into a community center for Harlem’s writers and artists.

Although she ruminated on the concept for the Collective on and off for five years, Watson established the nonprofit about a year ago with the fiscal sponsor DreamYard (a Bronx-based organization encouraging “youth, families and schools to build pathways to equity and opportunity through the arts”), and the support of local authors and writers including Jennifer Baker, Tracey Baptiste, Dhonielle Clayton, Ellen Hagan, Olugbemisola Rhuday, and Ibi Zoboi.

“The more Harlem changed the more urgency I felt to do something,” Watson says.

In August, they set up an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in order to repair and lease the property. In two months, the online fundraiser took in a little more than $87,000, for a total of $115,250 counting contribution matches and additional checks.

“The money we’ve raised will go towards the costs of our first year,” Watson says. “This includes rent, small renovations, and programming costs.” Moving forward, the Collective hopes to sustain itself through private donations and grants.

Beyond preserving a structure, Watson wants to foster a community of artists to uphold Hughes’ legacy within those culturally sacred walls. “Our hope is to host open mics, author readings, and poetry workshops for youth and young adults,” she says. “We’d also like the space to be used by the community for events local artists would like to put on.”

Luckily, the historic site seems fairly secure, according to Seri Worden, senior field officer in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s New York field office. “The building itself, this lovely 19th-century brownstone, is a designated New York City landmark. So the likelihood of it getting torn down is very low, if not close to impossible,” she says. “And, it’s also zoned residential, so the likelihood that it’d be turned into some sort of unwelcome commercial enterprise — that is very unlikely, as well.”

The National Trust, which released its annual list of landmarks that are much more at risk, doesn’t have any current projects in Harlem. But Worden, who lives and works in New York City, understands the current housing and financial issues that the neighborhood is facing (like the controversial Whole Foods that is scheduled to open at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in early 2017).

“We’re aware of the rapid gentrification that has been occurring in Harlem,” she acknowledges. “I think we’re all concerned about the loss of affordable housing and hoping that the cultural identity of Harlem isn’t lost, in addition to the amazing historic architecture there, too.”

For the I, Too, Arts Collective, the next steps involve working with the current owner to finalize legal terms and sign a one-year lease on the property. After doing so, Watson explains that the nonprofit will host a soft launch with small gatherings and private events. She hopes the official opening will take place in February 2017.

“We hope to not only preserve … the legacy of Langston Hughes and the history of Harlem … but build on them with a new generation of writers and artists,” she says. “I think the benefit of a space like this is that it strengthens the community and also makes art a living thing, something that is tangible, art that is grounded in the past while very much speaking to present issues.”

Hilary Saunders is a full-time freelance journalist and the assistant music editor at Paste Magazine. She’s written about music for publications around the world, and strives to show how the arts can positively impact our cities.

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Tags: new york cityarts and culturegentrificationhistoric preservation

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