The Battle for Langston Hughes’s Harlem Home

Strolling around Harlem, where identical brownstones shoulder each other for streets on end, it’s easy to walk past and not identify one as the historical home of Langston Hughes. As a foundational figure in jazz poetry and the Harlem RenaissanceHughes lived at the center of the movement, at 20 East 127th Street, from 1948 until his death in 1967. Today, it lays empty and, until recently, the owner was frantically searching for a purchaser at the area’s ballooning prices.

Then along came the I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit arts conservation group that has begun a grassroots campaign to convert his Harlem home into a communal space for artists of all kinds. All the funds donated to the collective would go to leasing, renovating, and potentially re-zoning the landmark so that the three-story home could once again play host to the musicians and writers it did in Hughes’s era.

As of writing, more than 1,000 people have donated to the collective’s crowdfunding page. Almost $64,000 has been raised in one month, far exceeding the $40,000 needed to sign a three-year lease and keep the house off the market. For Renée Watson, I, Too’s Executive Director, the next rung on the ladder is $150,000 by year’s end, at which point she can support a volunteer staff for a year’s worth of readings and events.

“Change is happening in Harlem and I believe it is important that in a place like Harlem, the historical and cultural spaces where African American pioneers lived and created be preserved”, Watson said in a statement written on the collective’s crowd-funding website. “This is not just for nostalgic reasons. I see a need for young people to know about and understand the legacy they are a part of; the artists and activists who paved the way for them. I also believe artists need affordable spaces to create and share their work.”

For New Yorkers, Harlem is one of the last remaining havens of affordable living on Manhattan island, and the newest battleground against wave of gentrification. Beyond the superficial indications (a new Whole Foods will be opening up blocks from Langston’s house, for example), buildings in the same style have been appraised for more than $1 million dollars – and Hughes’s is valued as high as $3 million. With both inexpensive dwellings and community-run cultural hubs being perpetually pushed out of reach of artists and people of color, Watson and I, Too, Art Collective’s stand is a remarkably important one.

You can learn more and donate to I, Too, Art Collective here.


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