Late last year, the efforts to save the late James Baldwin’s French country house ramped up when a developer announced plans for a luxury apartment complex on the same land. The developer, Henri Chambon, has agreed to preserve Baldwin’s home, but he plans to move forward with his development—a move that has infuriated historians and literary activists.
The fight over this property, and to a greater effect Baldwin’s legacy, has continued for years. After his death in 1987, a lengthy court battle ensued between Baldwin’s brother David and the property’s owner, Jeanne Faure. Baldwin was close friends with Faure and had paid her installments over several years, with the eventual goal of taking over ownership. He passed before he could complete the payments.
Faure’s heir was able to retain ownership of the property and eventually sold it to a Dutch hotel developer. That developer sold it to Chambon’s company, SOCRI, which currently retains rights to the land.
In 2016, in response to a new permit filing for a 19-unit apartment complex on the property, a small group of activists banded together to protect Baldwin’s house. They launched a change.org petition that brought attention to the matter but failed to garner all the necessary signatures.
That same year, literary activist Shannon Cain squatted in the house to make a statement and call attention to Baldwin’s legacy. At this point, some of the home had already been demolished, and Cain was determined to preserve what she could.
“There exists no trace of James Baldwin in the village where he lived for 17 years. His half-demolished house bears no plaque. There is no statue or bust in any town square,” she wrote for Lit Hub. “Here in the place he considered home, it appears that this great American literary and civil rights icon has disappeared from history.”
Cain went on to found Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin, an organization created to raise money to buy the land from SOCRI. However, Cain’s fundraising efforts were a tall order. SOCRI’s asking price was nearly 10 million euros. As of November, the organization had only raised 8,000 euros.
In January, Cain officially said goodbye to the property via a profile in a Nice, France newspaper. A blog post from Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin detailed a group of philanthropists who’d pledged the funds but backed away suddenly. It was a crushing defeat, but without the funding, Cain had no choice but to give up the fight for the land.
However, through Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin, she has done tremendous work to keep his spirit alive in St. Paul-de Vence, the small country village where the property is located. The St. Paul-de Vence Writer-in-Residence Program was created to nurture literary talent in Baldwin’s honor, in the very place where he spent his final years. The first resident was announced February 18—poet Cornelius Eady.
There’s also a welcome center, an art sale, and boutique, all created to raise funds and continue preserving Baldwin’s spirit and the literary arts in St. Paul-de Vence.
Additionally, his spirit lives on globally. I Am Not Your Negro, the hit documentary based on one of his unfinished manuscripts, won a BAFTA at this year’s ceremony. There are several Black History Month screenings of the film across the country. And his quotes and literature are often shared across social media, especially in times of great racial tension like last year’s deadly riot in Charlottesville.
On one hand, the failure to buy back the land and save his home could be viewed as a failure. But the way Cain and Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin have injected the village with Baldwin’s spirit and literature, and how the mission has gained global attention, still indicates a win.