By Albert Samaha
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It isn't hard to find the Langston Hughes house in East Harlem: It's midway down the block named in his honor (Langston Hughes Place, a section of East 127th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues), it's covered in ivy, and there's a plaque out front.
But finding any other evidence there of the acclaimed poet's contributions to American literature and the Harlem Renaissance is more difficult. Although the brownstone where Hughes spent the last 20 years of his life has been landmarked since 1981, it's privately owned and not open to the public. At least, that is, since April, when the current owner, a physician named Beverly Prince, evicted tenants who had started a nonprofit dedicated to Hughes's memory. Now, not only does the public no longer have access to the house, but the two sides are suing each other. In the meantime, the house stands empty, except for Prince's son, Michael, who is living in the basement.
The house wasn't always so uninviting. Hughes purchased it in 1947 with Toy and Emerson Harper, close family friends he called "aunt" and "uncle." Hughes financed his part of the purchase with the proceeds from his collaboration with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice on the Broadway musical Street Scene, according to Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, who is also co-executor of the Hughes estate. Upon the poet's death in 1967, ownership of the house remained with the Harpers. Their son, James Emerson Harper, sold the house in 1985 to Prince and her then husband, Albert Davis. "His family—the people who lived in the house—entrusted me with it, and I have taken good care of it," Prince tells the Voice. "I feel that Langston would be proud."
It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to own a house in Harlem, says Prince, who grew up the daughter of a house cleaner and was the first in her family to go to college and then to medical school. But keeping up the house was costly, and Prince felt that owning it made her family vulnerable: "I used to keep it a secret that I owned the house, because it was high-profile," she says.
For a time, the family offered tours of the historic home and put on programs for the community. When Prince and Davis divorced, she kept the house but didn't want to live in it. "It's very expensive," she says. "It's almost like I moved out of the house to keep the house." She moved upstate and then took in renters at the Hughes house to help with expenses, as Hughes did when he lived there.
In 2006, Shon Miller, a music producer, was looking to rent a studio apartment with his then business partner, jazz pianist Marc Cary, when he got a chance to inspect the house. At the time, he points out, he happened to be shooting a music video for the 1951 Hughes poem, "Harlem." But when he arrived to look around, he wasn't impressed.
"Langston Hughes's piano was in the little living room, but the place looked like a crack house," he remembers. "It looked like a shooting gallery. It was completely beat-down and beat-up."
Miller says he had concerns about the heating, plumbing, electricity, and roof, as well as the fact that the owner's son was living in the basement, but he signed a three-year commercial lease for the same reason that he would later start a Langston Hughes House nonprofit organization—out of a sense of necessity. "I took that building for a lot of reasons other than [why] I would normally take a space," he said. "When I got in there, I felt it was something we had to do."
And others agreed. Jana Herzen, founder of Motéma Records, came in and occupied a space on the third floor of the building, assisting Miller with planning, program development, and funding. According to Miller, he also had the support of Congressman Charles B. Rangel, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Apollo Theater, City College, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Better World Foundation contributed cash and a $150,000 Fazioli piano to the effort, even before the nonprofit was approved as tax-exempt. "They were allies and contributed time and money and everything they could because they believed in the cause as well," Miller says.
Getting the support of the local community proved more difficult. Miller claims that he initially had a hard time reaching out to artists in Harlem because of the antagonistic relationship the Princes had with the neighborhood: "Apparently, she got a dumpster and threw out tons of shit, including tons of typewriters and Langston Hughes's things," he says. So he made pains to differentiate himself and his Langston Hughes organization from the actual owners of the Hughes house. "We are not those people; we are the opposite of those people," he says he'd explain. "We are the people that are coming in and restoring this place and bringing it back to where it needs to be."
In order to restore the house to a condition in which it could be shown to the public, Miller estimates that he spent between $40,000 and $60,000 on structural repairs, including the leaky roof.