I Squatted James Baldwin’s House in Order to Save It
Shannon Cain on Preserving a Literary Legend's Last Address
To clean the floor of James Baldwin’s guest room would take 32 disposable cleaning wipes. I figured this out on my hands and knees, estimating the square footage of the terra cotta tile surface. There were 40 wipes in the package. If I used one wipe per roughly two square feet, I’d have enough. I was camping here without running water or electricity, but damned if I was going to live inside a dusty mess.
Four days earlier, struggling under the weight of a camping backpack laden with supplies, a duffel of linens, bag of books and a deluxe inflatable bed, I’d pushed aside the unlocked wire barrier of the ten-acre property and entered the 17th-century stone house, illegally. It wasn’t hard to do; the door had been busted off its frame long before I arrived and the place was wide open. I was sweating, exhausted and elated; I’d spent the previous six hours traveling by trains and buses from Paris, stressing hard about this moment, worried I’d be detected.
I knew the house already. I’d spent many hours here on my last visit, three weeks earlier, for a research and relationship-building trip to St.-Paul-de-Vence. My co-organizer—who the next day would leave our partnership in a justifiable fury over my decision to squat—and I had made several visits to the property over the three days we were here. At the recommendation of a local artist we lodged at the medieval convent on the hill, among Les Sœurs Dominicaines. One night I snuck out of the nunnery and hiked down the hill, past the hotel Columbe d’Or, through the boules court and down to the chemin du Pilon, following the route Baldwin himself surely took a thousand times. I entered the abandoned house through its wide-open wire fence and broken front door in order to sit in the bastide’s backside window and stare at the valley below and the Mediterranean beyond, glowing in the moonlight. That was the night I began to suspect I was about to embark on the either the adventure or the folly of my midlife.
Almost three weeks later, I woke in a panic in my apartment in Paris, realizing the danger in which we’d put the house by launching the website announcing our efforts to save it. By shining a light on the situation, I understood with a sudden clarity, we might very well compel the developer to advance his construction schedule on those godawful luxury condos. Already the period to challenge the building permit had passed; they were legally allowed to start construction any time. Moreover it was rumored that this developer had upon at least one occasion caused the “accidental” destruction via bulldozer (air quotes being a gesture I was shown by more than one villager who told me the story) of an historic building within the preservation zone. And I couldn’t forget that two wings of the Baldwin’s house he had already demolished, and illegally so. It had been three weeks since we’d contacted them to open negotiations, with no reply. I packed my bags, informed the shocked team of my decision, and bought a one-way train ticket to St. Paul de Vence.
I have been focusing full time on this project—to acquire this property and convert it into a residence for artists and writers—since March. I’ve tossed all reason to the wind, have stopped taking the freelance work I need in order to survive, have borrowed money shamelessly from my family and can report that as of today my rent is 35 days past due. I may very well be making a huge ass of myself. I might be in the process of fucking up this whole thing. This could easily be the midlife tomfoolery that happens to so many people in their fifties; the thing people will tsk about after I’m dead.
James Baldwin moved to St. Paul-de-Vence, a medieval village on the Côte d’Azur, in 1970. Here he lived the last 17 years of his life. A short drive from Cannes and Antibes, the place is today a hugely popular tourist destination, with two million visitors a year; one of the locals tells me it’s the most visited village in France. The place is as charming as they come, even for Provence, all cobblestones and medieval ramparts and adorable tile-roofed stone houses. As a tourist destination, it bases its reputation on the arts. Ateliers and galleries dominate the storefronts.
It must be said that the place is rather Disneyfied.
There is not a single boulangerie in St. Paul de Vence, never mind a grocery store. This is not the village that Baldwin knew; the butcher and baker and candlestick maker are here no more. The same old story happened here: artists moved in a few generations ago, made it fabulous, hiked property values and were forced out in thanks for the favor. Still, today it’s a pleasant place for what it offers: a charming day trip; a lovely weekend. Public art is everywhere you look; music and performance fill the squares; the shops and galleries are well curated. The literary and artistic figures who occupied or sojourned at the village—Jacques Prévert! Simone Signoret! Marc Chagall! Yves Montand! Picasso!—are celebrated on plaques and by tour guides and in commemorative coffee-table books for sale in the gift shops.
Yet 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. Here in the place he considered home, it appears that this great American literary and civil rights icon has been disappeared from history. Then, finally, after a week in St. Paul I discover a nod in his direction, in a book of art photographs in a gift shop near Café de la Place. In this 60€ coffee-table item filled with page after page of famous white people, there’s a small photo, less than a quarter of the page, containing the image of the only black person in the book. L’ecrivain Americain James Baldwin, is all the caption reads.
* * * *
Anyone who knows me knows that I hate camping. Perhaps I had too much of it as a child, on cross-country road trips to visit family. Wilderness is wonderful, but I prefer to enjoy it with a roof over my head. Give me a cabin in the woods with running water and electricity, please, and if possible a bit of wifi.
None of these amenities were present in the abandoned Ancienne Maison Baldwin, as the house is formally known by the city records office. I learned this fact the day after I arrived, in the process of securing the first of the several preuves, or official bits of documentation, I needed to establish my squatters’ rights, which according to French law would be mine after 48 hours. The cancelled postage on the postcard I was about to send to myself would serve as one of these proofs. But I didn’t know my address: the house didn’t bear a number. I inquired at the tourist office, which called the records office, and was informed that the place was never assigned one. There are only two houses on the little road anyhow. To send a letter, one addresses it to the Ancienne Maison Baldwin, chemin du Pilon, St. Paul de Vence 06570. It seems the post office, at least, remembers James Baldwin.
I stayed inside the house as much as possible those first two days. Without electricity and water, and squatting idiotically-slash-artistically all by myself, I was of course obligated to leave the place unattended when I went out for necessities. Mostly I confined myself to brief trips to the village to steal wifi by sitting outside the cafes and shops from which I’d managed to secure passwords, to eat lunch at one of the many restaurants, and to fill up my water bottles at the public fountain next to the Columbe d’Or. Every day I would also recharge my devices—laptop, iPad, phone, spare battery—at an enormous sycamore in the Place, one of a dozen majestic trees shading the court where Baldwin almost certainly played boules with the artists and luminaries he hosted at his villa—Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte. I’d dubbed the tree l’arbre de l’éctricité for the electrical outlets hanging from its trunk. I would sit there every day for an hour or so, watching the tourists toss boules ineptly and the locals with astonishing precision. I’d allow passersby to take pictures of the amusing incongruity of a lady in a pink dress surrounded by her electronics at a tree-based charging station, a medieval village looming in the background.
* * * *
The squatter’s law in France is meant to dissuade land speculation and absentee ownership. It is perhaps one of the purest manifestations of socialism. For seven years, the real estate developer that owns the Baldwin house has let this historic structure and its magnificent gardens go to seed. In the meantime, they’ve been busy with other projects, including the construction of an enormous American-style shopping center in Nice, all superstores and parking lots, reputedly built within a flood plain. In my research over the last months I have heard nothing but disdain and outright hatred for this corporation among the local people. “He’s a bandit, that one,” muttered a local business owner to me a few days ago, referring to M. Chambon, the owner of the company. This is the man who ordered half the square footage of James Baldwin’s house to be destroyed, including his study and living quarters, in order to attach instead two new wings containing 18 luxury condos. Sales price: over a million euros each.
* * * *
In the crucial early days of my occupation, I had support from a seasoned squat activist in Marseille. It’s better, she told me on the phone the day I arrived, to get as many preuves as you can. In addition to the postcard, you’ll need a witness, she said. Or two.
Since the 48-hour squatter’s-rights clock doesn’t start ticking until you can prove you’re on the property, it was important that I get witnesses pronto. Many squatters have a pizza delivered to the address immediately upon occupation, making the delivery guy an unwitting témoin. I pulled out my phone and Yelped wildly that afternoon, sitting in sweat outside the post office from which I’d just mailed my postcard. No dice: the closest place that delivered was in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and they were closed until six.
I wandered back into the place, scanning the crowds of tourists, looking for an opportunity, gathering my courage to approach an American-accented person and ask for a crazy favor—when I spotted a taxicab parked outside the Colombe d’Or and realized here was my witness. A cab driver. Poor guy, I thought on our way to Baldwin’s house, as I snapped a photo of his license and of his profile, he may end up in court, testifying about this lady in a sunhat who insisted that he park his van at the main grill of the house and watch her enter an abandoned building.
My second witness came by later that evening. She was the friend of a friend, an environmental activist who lived in the next village over. We stood at the gate and chatted for a while about the beauty and wildness of the acres surrounding the house, the large zone verte encompassed within a protected forest, and about the possibility of finding some endangered creature who lived there—a frog, a bat, an owl—that might serve as a rallying cry for the green activists. After a few minutes I became nervous we would be spotted, so I scurried back inside. If I were caught within the first 48 hours, the whole enterprise would be a bust.
* * * *
Doing this work, I’ve been confronted with accusations of illegitimacy. They boil down to this: as a white person, who do you think you are? Where do you get the right?
How do I possibly claim legitimacy to occupy James Baldwin’s house? I claim legitimacy as a queer person. I claim legitimacy as an activist for social justice. I claim legitimacy as a writer. I claim legitimacy as a leader. I claim legitimacy as a person who cares for the planet. As a white person, however, I claim no legitimacy at all to occupy this house, apart from the elegant fact that I’m the only one here.
In the midst of profound racial unrest in America, being a white person of conscience and reason means confronting your privilege. As I sit in the window overlooking the valley I consider my privilege: would a person be able to pull off this squat if they looked less like me and more like Baldwin? It’s not as though racism is any less a problem here in France. Now that the squat is over, I cannot imagine how my confrontations with the police and with ruthless businessmen and their private security teams might have gone if I weren’t a white American woman. As a Westerner of European descent living in times of intense bigotry and violence, I feel the pull to deploy my privilege toward the struggle against hatred and injustice. My privilege gave me the opportunity to take on this project; it put me here, in France, with the background, experience, immigration status and temperament to both put up a stinking fight and also to raise a buttload of money to buy back this house.
* * * *
What’s the end game, for an artist’s squat? Ideally—and this is not an infrequent outcome—the property is improved, bit by bit, by its squatters, and eventually it becomes a gathering place for artists, a place for creativity and alternative thought. A deal is struck with the owner, often with government intervention. A community is formed. Those were the dreams I dreamed, sitting in a curious door in Baldwin’s bedroom that opened out into the void. Once upon a time there must have been a balcony there, but now there’s nothing but air, and a two-story drop into the bramble. I loved sitting in that spot, my legs dangling over the side of the house, that view spread out before me. The weeds below bore crusty white spots from my toothpaste. Squatting alone isn’t exactly recommended by those who know what they’re doing. This thing was equally performance art as activism: going solo says something important about the role of the artist. Sitting in that window I wrote an angry artist’s manifesto and thought about what would happen if I fell: nobody would know. Nobody would come. I would lie broken and bleeding in the scratchy weeds.
I kept sitting there anyway. In three more days, a representative of the development company would catch me in the house (in my underwear!) and call the cops, and I would refuse to leave, and we would begin a standoff that included beefy 24-hour security dudes and an attack dog taking up residence, ironically, in the guard house. Eventually they would end my squat after nine days by illegally entering the house and removing my things, food and water included, while I was gone. The developer reserved me a room in the hotel de charme directly across the street, where under my first shower in a week I scrubbed the dirt off my skin and wept out my guts.
* * * *
On the fourth day of the squat, on my hands and knees with a package of disinfectant wipes, worried about the negative energy coming my way from all sides, I was calmed not just by the shining terra cotta emerging from my work but also by the knowledge that James Baldwin’s writing, his brilliance, and his message were simple: it all comes down to love. I muttered it as I wiped. He was all about the love, I finally said aloud to nobody but me, the fool on the floor wiping away the grime.
Working to save this house is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To push past the naysayers, the opportunists, the fearful. To accept the support and ignore the hate. Squatting this house resulted in the beginning of negotiation with the developer. Speaking to me through the kitchen window, his representative told me he was pretty sure his boss would be willing to sell. Later, after I’d been kicked out of the house, I went back a couple of times to chat with the security guards, to show them the newspaper article and the radio interview, and to take pictures of the house. One day the guy with the attack dog had a message for me from the boss. Si vous levez les fonds, Madame, went the message, la maison est a vous. If you raise the money, the house is yours.
I’m not going back to Paris. Looks like I’m moving to Provence. As I search for an apartment as close as possible to L’Ancienne Maison Baldwin, I’m lodging with the nuns again. My convent room is spare yet comfortable and has a stunning view of the village, the valley and the sea. I feel embraced by these sisters. They’re strict about keeping the doors locked, they scold me when I forget to tell them I won’t be home for dinner, and they tell me I’ve done well and I should keep up my courage. The terra cotta tiles on the floor of my room are the precise kind as in Baldwin’s place.
If you would like to donate to the project, please visit http://hisplaceinprovence.org/donate/