Lawsuits and the Langston Hughes House

A Harlem cultural touchstone, like so many others, closes off its past

"I wanted to restore it and have it a certain way," he says. "And the whole intention was to, at some point, come up with the money to be able to purchase the building from her, just because she had no respect for it."

On what would have been Langston Hughes's 105th birthday—February 1, 2007—the house officially opened. "We weren't trying to re-create some neo-renaissance thing or . . . be a museum," Miller says. Instead, the nonprofit hosted interactive tours, a biweekly open-mic series called "Free Thought Thursdays," a jazz series, and performances by the Langston Hughes House Youth Ensemble every Sunday. Miller estimates that he sponsored more than 200 shows in two years.

But Miller says that Prince's son, Michael, who declined to comment for this story, became openly antagonistic.

Shon Miller tried to make the Hughes house a destination.
Patricia Sener
Shon Miller tried to make the Hughes house a destination.

According to Melvin Williams, a retired neighbor who has lived a few doors down from the Hughes house for about 14 years, Michael Prince complained about the noise and admitted to cutting off the electricity to Miller's shows, forcing him to run cords from other brownstones.

"They fixed it up," Williams says, defending Miller. "I can't see why the guy would keep cutting the electricity off when he knew they were renting it for music."

Numerous anonymous complaints were made to the city's Department of Buildings about what was going on at the Hughes house, which resulted in inspections. After one inspection in March 2007, Miller was informed that he was running an illegal commercial business out of a residential building. He was subsequently issued a violation and ordered to cease doing business immediately. When he argued that he'd signed a commercial lease, he was told that he'd have to settle that matter in court. So that's what he did: Miller sued Prince in housing court for rent abatement and sought a corrections order to address all of the building's continuing repair needs. She, in turn, sued him in commercial court for non-payment of rent.

They both won. Prince was ordered to make repairs to the building, which, according to Miller, she never did. Miller was ordered to pay the rent he owed or move out. Unable to operate his for-profit business out of his residence, financially tapped from the lawsuits, and still baffled by how he could be sued in commercial court by the owner of a residential building, Miller decided to leave in April.

According to Prince, who was living in upstate New York while Miller was in the house, this was a difficult time for her as well. "I certainly wanted to work together, but I wasn't going to give up the house," she says.

'It's a difficult business, making something out of a house that basically contains very few of the artifacts that existed when Hughes was there. But something ought to be done with it," says Rampersad, the Hughes biographer. The house may be a landmarked building, but it is not community property: Landmark status is an architectural assessment that does not address the other issues involved with a cultural touchstone like the Hughes house.

"I am deeply interested in Hughes and the legacy of Hughes. I also believe very strongly that houses—literal houses—are important in maintaining the legacy of a writer," Rampersad says.

There are plenty of examples of that in Harlem. The homes of Billy Strayhorn, Ralph Ellison, and Cab Calloway are landmarked, though the homes of Billie Holiday, James Weldon Johnson, and Florence Mills are not. But none of these homes are open to the public or in any way commemorate the contributions that their former owners made to American culture. "It's like an opportunity to make history very real to the people in the city, and it's not being done," says David Bellel, a retired schoolteacher whose own curiosity led him to research and create a Google map of the homes of famous Harlemites. "I'm not saying its racism—it's classist. It's like they're more interested in preserving stuff that might be like a museum piece of architecture rather than really commemorating the people originally there."

Which is why, some argue, the cultural programming in the Langston Hughes house was so important. "It was such a wonderful matching of history, the past and the present," says Marci Reaven, managing director of City Lore. "Even if it's critically important that a building like the Langston Hughes house [is landmarked], it's far better if the use can dovetail with the historical meaning of the building, because it's the use that keeps the historical value in people's memory."

But the use and maintenance of historic homes, landmarked or not, is up to the owners—like the home of circus entrepreneur James Bailey, located at 10 St. Nicholas Place. "It's in terrible condition, and the owner is just trying to get as much for it as she can," says Michael Henry Adams, the author of Harlem Lost and Found. "It will be bought and carved up into condominiums." He adds: "To me, that's one of the great problems of Harlem—very few buildings are landmarked compared to other neighborhoods, and [of] the buildings that are landmarked, virtually none are open to the public as museums to commemorate African-American achievement."

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