Ten million euros. This is the amount required to purchase and restore African-American writer James Baldwin’s country house, which is currently threatened by a real estate project. Luckily, a “literary activist” in Saint-Paul-de-Vence is refusing to give up.
Located halfway between Nice and Antibes, the house where James Baldwin spent the last 17 years of his life has seen better days. The white stone façade is crumbling, the roof is sagging, and the windows have been bricked up. The building’s two wings have already been demolished, and a digger has begun to level the hill below the Chemin de Pilon path that leads down to the house. Trucks are removing the ocher-colored earth, and the site is closed to the public.
An official French national heritage architect has convinced the developer, Henri Chambon, to preserve the house, but the building is set to be absorbed by a luxury complex comprising 19 apartments, a gym, a sauna, and an infinity pool. “A Provencal country house and listed historic monument stands in the center of the development,” announced a promotional video published by Sotheby’s. The French daily Nice Matin has reported that four residences — on the market at between 1 and 2.5 million euros — have already been reserved.
“The estate has been rechristened Le Jardin des Arts [The Garden of the Arts], but will not pay homage to the memory of James Baldwin,” says Shannon Cain. “It’s the height of hypocrisy!” The Arizona-born writer has consolidated the efforts to save the heritage site of her “favorite author.” She squatted in the sealed-off house for ten days in 2016 to raise public awareness, and moved permanently to Saint-Paul-de-Vence last September to commit herself fully to her “mission.” She now heads up the Les Ami.es de la Maison Baldwin association along with the daughter of one of James Baldwin’s friends, and manages an visitor center and an art gallery opposite the village church.
The association has already raised “between 7,000 and 8,000 euros,” says Shannon Cain, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The Socri group in charge of developing the site is demanding 9.9 million euros in exchange for the rights to the property. “They haven’t laid the foundations yet, so we still have a chance!”
An Appeal to French and American Patrons
The American is refusing to give up. Supported by UNESCO and the French Ministry for Culture, she hopes to convince the real estate developer Henri Chambon and transform James Baldwin’s final home into an artists’ residence. [Her last three requests have gone unanswered.] Backed by her “15 years of experience in philanthropy” in the United States, Shannon Cain claims to have a list of 50 patrons who “regularly donate millions to African-American causes.”
However, some of James Baldwin’s descendants — administrators of the author’s estate — contest Shannon Cain’s project for an artists’ residence and are unsure of her motives, accusing her of cultural appropriation. “James Arthur Baldwin […] is not a cottage industry for those who seek to lay claim to his genius,” wrote the author’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, last March. “Honor him, yes. Continue his work, yes. Write like him, if you must. Hijack his legacy and claim to be a disciple for your own means and purposes – no.”
Despite the opposition from James Baldwin’s heirs, the project to restore the house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence has received the support of many figures from the African-American community. The feminist essayist Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker (The Color Purple), and Charles H.F. Davis III, director of research at the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, are both members of a committee founded to save the house. In March 2016, the Paris-based writer Thomas Chatterton Williams published an opinion piece in Le Monde entitled “France Must Save James Baldwin’s House.” His message was echoed by writer Toni Morrison, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a friend of James Baldwin.
According to Shannon Cain, the Les Ami.es de la Maison Baldwin association will be recognized as a philanthropic organization “in the next few months.” This official status should foster fundraising initiatives in both France and the United States. While waiting for the ten million euros needed to acquire the rights to the site, the American writer hopes to pay the property developer a down payment of 30 percent in order to halt the construction work. The first apartments are set for delivery in June 2019, but the “literary activist” is redoubling her efforts to preserve James Baldwin’s final place of residence. “It’s a hard fight, and I’m not going to give up.”