Stop In The Name Of Love: Can Gentrifying Harlem Pause To Honor Its Past?

Harlem in the 1980’s was a place you couldn’t give brownstones away. Good luck trying to get one now!

By Jeff Vasishta December 23, 2016
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia

Harlem in the 1980’s was a place you couldn’t give brownstones away. The urban soundscape comprised shotguns and sirens and the Koch administration held a lottery to sell brownstones to local residents for $5000 and pay for the repairs. It was a far cry from its heyday–a preeminent African American neighborhood known for its jazz, blues and soul, the literature of Langston Hughes, Nora Neale Hurston, William Baldwin and more recently, Maya Angelou. It was also a far cry from it’s now becoming.

Related: Are Raccoons Plotting To Take Over The City? Harlem Residents Think It Could Happen. Can New York Survive Their Furry Vengeance?

Indicative of the rapidity of change that has spread across New York’s historically black boroughs like a firestorm over arid brush, late poet, Maya Angelou’s Harlem brownstone recently sold for $4.08 million. It was purchased as a shell in 2004. However, as far as Harlem based author Renee Watson is concerned Uptown’s heritage is being trampled over in the rush for real estate dollars.

“I’ve walked past the brownstone where(poet/writer) Langston Hughes lived many times and wondered why it was empty,” she explains. “How could it be that his home wasn’t preserved as a space for poets, a space to honor his legacy? I’d pass the brownstone, shake my head, and say, ‘Someone should do something.’ I have stopped saying, ‘Someone should do something’ and I’ve gathered a group of writers and artists and we are trying to do something.”

Watson has formed the nonprofit organization, I, Too, Arts Collective with the goal of creating a space for emerging and established authors to gather, create, and showcase their work. The organization’s first project is to preserve and celebrate the legacy of Langston Hughes by leasing the Harlem brownstone where he lived and created during the last twenty years of his life. Unlike other New York nabes noticeably in Bedstuy and Crown Heights, getting the city stave off developers by landmarking large sections of Harlem is proving an uphill battle.

Landmarking is rarely a neighborhood’s top concern when there are more pressing issues,” Christopher Moore, a former curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and one of the longest-serving commissioners at the landmarks commission, from 1995 to 2015 told the New York Times recently. “The commission is not omnipotent, like many people think.”

In Watson’s favor is the fact that Langston Hughes’ former home is currently vacant and needs work. The owner, who lives in Upstate New York and is empathetic to her cause, has given Watson until August 31st to secure funding and sign a lease.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“She’s believes in our mission and doesn’t just want to rent it to anyone,” Watson says.[/perfectpullquote]

“There are a lot of people in Harlem, black owned businesses, that are passionate about holding on the area’s legacy in small ways. Recently I went to Sugar Hill Children’s Museum and it was inspiring to see Harlem honor its culture and community. I understand people want to make as much money as they can through real estate but I think there has to be some balance, especially in Harlem.”

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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