By Bruce Poli
James Baldwin, writer, philosopher, gay African American activist (new acronym GAAA) from Paris to Harlem, is one of the most celebrated creative figures of the 20th century. He was born in Harlem Hospital and lived in Harlem during his childhood, however his frequent home and visitations later were in Greenwich Village. It was here that he made much of his indelible mark on the American consciousness.
In 1943 Baldwin moved from Harlem to 181 Greene Street to live with his modernist painter friend Beaufort Delaney, by whom he was introduced to the creative world, particularly jazz and art—much of it in the Village—and the arc of his ascendancy began. Five years later he left for Paris to escape the racism of the city.
His dynamic influence as a civil rights leader and artistic spokesperson led to a constant fan presence outside the many buildings where he lived. In 1955 he lived on Gay Street with the Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger (the street is named for a family that once lived there and is NOT associated with LGBT history). It was a classic Village setting inspiring openness and self-reflection.
The characters in his novels, such as his second novel Giovanni’s Room written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement began, often face internal and external obstacles in their search for personal and social acceptance.
It seems that over the years, reports of Baldwin meetings and conversations spring up everywhere. Julianne Moore, in a short video about her home on Horatio Street, mentions that James Baldwin was rumored to have lived in her apartment. In fact, he lived at 81 Horatio from 1958-1961, where he worked on his acclaimed novel Another Country, pointing out “There were a couple of Negroes in the building already.”
Veteran cultured New Yorkers had publicly celebrated conversations with him at the Lion’s Head, the Sazerac House, the Minetta Tavern, Joe’s Diner and the White Horse Tavern. According to legend, James Baldwin and the West Village became a marriage and a tour unto itself. He appears to have been the most consistent figure to bring Harlem, Paris, and Greenwich Village together in an unending series of storied encounters and events.
Many of his essays are notoriously book-length, including The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was expanded and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2016) which you can easily find on Netflix as a Black History Month classic. His novel If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted for an Academy Award-winning film in 2018.
I like to think of James Baldwin as the ever-present symbol of Greenwich Village—representing so many aspects of why we live here and love here. He is an American presence who will be living forever.
And he is ours.
Even though we’ll always have Paris.