Lawsuits and the Langston Hughes House

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

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.

"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.

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."

As the Landmark Preservation Commission itself points out, museums and activities aren't part of its mandate: The landmarking law only applies to a building's appearance.

"The city's landmarks law was enacted to protect the city's buildings . . . . It does not have the power to mandate how a particular property is used, and therefore cannot require a private homeowner to operate a museum or educational program that explains the cultural contributions of the activities that occurred in a particular place," says the commission's spokeswoman, Elisabeth de Bourbon.

In fact, landmarked buildings aren't even required to put up a plaque indicating the designation. That decision, said de Bourbon, is left entirely up to the discretion of the owner.

"It is very troubling for me that Harlem is becoming a richer and whiter place every day," says Adams. "But once you have more white people, there will be more attention paid to landmarking in Harlem, because white people will demand it. But by then it'll be too late, because there won't be any black people living here and commemorating buildings like the Langston Hughes house. It will be like Colonial Williamsburg, with black actors hired to entertain the white people who come to visit."

Before her death last month, Barbara Ann Teer—the executive director of the National Black Theater, who purchased the 64,000-square-foot building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1983 to create a black-arts complex—was thinking about this very issue. "Dr. Teer discovered that there was a special zoning resolution, specifically establishing special zoning districts for Little Italy, Lincoln Square, and lower Manhattan. She was exploring how to distinguish Harlem as a special-purpose district and establish a geographical zone to make it a designated area," says the theater's Shirley Faison.

For now, the nonprofit that Miller started to preserve the Hughes house is operating out of a space at Danbro Studios in Williamsburg. Michael and Beverly Prince, meanwhile, have filed a federal lawsuit against Miller, the city, and others, complaining that Miller fraudulently altered the house and that the city did nothing about it. They're asking for $300 million (yes, $300 million) in punitive and $20 million in compensatory damages.

Despite these setbacks, Miller remains clear about his aims: "The first and foremost goal of the Langston Hughes House not-for-profit organization is to try and buy that building from her." Miller says he hasn't been back to the house since a few weeks after the eviction. "When we went back a couple of weeks later, there was a bum sleeping on the steps in a pool of piss. We were just like, 'This is great. That's excellent. That was a great investment.' "

He adds: "I would love to get that building out of her hands. There's nothing more I would love."

"I hope that, one day, there's something there that testifies to Hughes's importance," says Rampersad. "But it takes more than an individual. It takes people assisting that individual, and money—and I don't know that those resources have been forthcoming. It takes an angel, in some respects."

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