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Battle to save US black rights author’s Riviera home

Campaigners bid to stop developers demolishing house that welcomed Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Yves Montand into luxury flats

3 April 2017
By Lama Hodeib

As a film on American civil rights activist James Baldwin opens in the UK, a group of campaigners are trying to stop developers demolishing the Riviera home where he lived and died.

The African American author lived in self-imposed exile in the house in Saint-Paul de Vence for 17 years and it was visited by many musical and artistic figures including Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Developers plan to demolish the house and build 19 luxury flats in one of the most-visited hilltop villages on the Côte d’Azur.

Campaigners from the His Place in Provence group say the 17th century house should be turned into a hub for artists as Baldwin wanted.

“This was James Baldwin’s safe place – the French owe it to him!” said group member Dereke Clements.

It was here he wrote Just Above My Head, If Beale Street Could Talk and Harlem Quartet.

Baldwin was writing a book on the lives and assassinations of three of his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, when he died in 1987 at the age of 63 from cancer.

Called Remember this House, the book has been recreated and reworked by filmmaker Raoul Peck and goes on release this weekend under the title I Am Not Your Negro.

Baldwin was an important figure for the black community and dedicated a large part of his life to defending their rights and helping them.

He caused shock on US TV when he said: “If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death the entire white world applauds, but if a black man says exactly the same thing he is judged a criminal and treated like one.”

He drew many supporters and friends to his house in Saint-Paul de Vence and last year the His Place group tried to buy the house from the developers with the aim to raise €10million for purchase and renovation.

Developers Socri offered the house for €9m but this was rejected as “three times its value” and American writer Shannon Cain of the group said: “It was disrespectful, there is no way that the place is worth €9m!”

In desperation to stop the development Ms Cain squatted in the house for 10 days.

Mr Clements said they had a legal case to stop the demolition as the main part of the house is protected by French law as a historical monument.

The group take heart from a fight to save Nina Simone’s childhood home in North Carolina, which was saved from demolition by a group of artists.

“Our goal is to get enough donations in order to be able to purchase the property, and then to turn it into a home for artists as Jimmy wished,” said Mr Clements.

“The place is important because of who he was, and because of the great cultural heritage that he left there. He contributed to the world with his art and words while he lived there”.

Socri told Connexion that the person able to comment would not available for at least two months.

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