Marked by houses covered in murals, handcrafted wooden wings, and Chinese characters, this Northside sanctuary brings writers, readers, and neighbors together in a thriving community.
HOURS email email@example.com for a tour
INDOOR AND OUTDOOR not handicap accessible, Alphabet City Literary Center will be handicap accessible
ADMISSION depends on event
TRANSPORTATION accessible by public transportation and foot
SITE INFORMATION www.cityofasylum.com
The Diamond of Sampsonia Way
Taking a walk through the Mexican War Streets might show off the Northside’s beautiful architecture, but as you reach Sampsonia Way, those bohemian homes become less and less frequent. Instead, a home shining with beautiful pinks, blues, and a cartoon saxophone protrudes out of the camouflaging Pittsburgh homes. This diamond in the rough is the Jazz House of the City of Asylum. The City of Asylum is a community of writers, readers and neighbors who provide sanctuary to endangered writers. Selected writers from all over the world are offered a home away from persecution to facilitate their right to have their voices heard. Currently, the City of Asylum has four homes, called House Publications: Jazz House, House Poem, Pittsburgh-Burma House, and Winged House. Additionally, community members and writers are provided opportunities to partake in cross-cultural exchanges with their fellow Pittsburghers.
Established in 2004 by Henry Reese, a Pittsburgh businessman, and Diane Samuels, a digital artist, they created it by purchasing and renovating a house on a small lane called Sampsonia Way. Following a speech given by Salman Rushdie, they felt compelled to join the international community of asylum cities. This network is called ICORN, International Cities of Refuge Network. It is an independent organization of cities and regions offering refuge to writers and artists. They wrote to the European networks to allow them to build a Pittsburgh City of Asylum, and finally they got a yes. Pittsburgh is now the US headquarters for ICORN.
Unlike most Cities of Asylum, Pittsburgh is funding itself without partnering with a university or organization. Reese and Samuels pulled together their friends and family and were able to have enough money to buy the house and provide medical benefits and a living stipend for a writer. Once this was done, the first writer arrived. They were Huang Xiang and his wife, Zhang Ling. With a child’s excitement and a 73 year-old’s wisdom, Huang Xiang was a captive of a Burmese prison where he had survived several sentences. He was regularly tortured and never given a fair trial. Nonetheless, he never stopped writing. As the first resident, Reese and Samuels allowed him free reign of his house, and when he wanted to paint it, they said, “Sure, why not?”. The next day, the scaffolding was up and Huang Xiang was painting his residence with Chinese characters. This building today is known as House Poem. A different artist decorates each house in some fashion. Highly respected jazz saxophonist and composer Oliver Lake painted the Jazz House. The Mattress Factory’s Community Art Lab and artists Laura Jean McLaughlin and Bob Zillar collaborated in the creation of Winged House based on a passage from Wole Soyinka’s memoir The Man Died. Pittsburgh- Burma House was created by Khet Mar, the third exiled writer in the City of Asylum residency program. Each house represents a different artist’s creativity and is a statement to the world that they are still here, and are not silenced.
Since the City of Asylum’s first resident, the community has gotten bigger and better. Writers from China, El Salvador, Burma, Venezuela, and Iran have lived there and through their residences, they have impacted the community. City of Asylum has had over 250 artists in for readings and concerts, they have published exiled writers works in English translations through their online journal Sampsonia Way, and are currently creating Alphabet City. Located in an old masonic temple, Alphabet City will be a community center of “writers, readers, and neighbors” in the Northside area of Pittsburgh. The ground floor and basement will be a bar, restaurant, bookstore, and a venue to hold readings, screenings, and concerts. The upper floors will be renovated into rental apartments of all incomes. This project is currently underway! Additionally, City of Asylum built the Garden-to-Garden Trail that starts at Alphabet City and ends at the Alphabet Reading Garden on Monterey Street next to the Mattress Factory.
The City of Asylum commits itself to those who need a place to live, a place to write, a place to think, and a place to breath. Community is ever changing and in the evolving community of Pittsburgh, these endangered writers can find solace in the City of Asylum.
Alphabet City: Creating a Cultural Community
Everybody has encountered a time in his/her life in which they had to start over. Many people have to relocate to a new city, leaving behind their neighbors and friends. Others have to change jobs, saying goodbye to their close-knit clan of coworkers. Some people have to move to a new school, leaving behind their well-known teachers, friends, and corridors. No matter what the situation may be, it is never easy. It often leaves people feeling scared and lonely, not knowing where to turn for comfort in the new and confusing place in which they find themselves. It is often in these moments in life in which people turn to what they’re most passionate about, sports, volunteer work, and for many, the arts.
The arts have always been a place of comfort, a place that people could turn towards in order to express their innermost feelings. These feelings can be heard in music, read in literature, and seen in artwork. No matter what the form, however, art always does a great job of comforting people in their darkest times and celebrating with them in their happiest moments. It connects people from all different types of backgrounds through the rawest emotions, something everybody can relate to.
“Art is a necessity- an essential part of our enlightenment process. We cannot, as a civilized society, regard ourselves as being enlightened without the arts.”
Maybe it’s art’s ability to connect everybody in one way or another that makes it one of the pillars of society. For centuries upon centuries, all throughout the world, art has been an integral part of society. Paintings can be found dating back to the Stone Age, depicting stories of cavemen and mammoths. If we fast forward thousands of years and turn our focus towards the ancient empire of Greece we can hear the musical makings of newly-found instruments such as lyres and the panflute. Jump forward to 18th century Rome, and we found ourselves in the height of the Renaissance; the printing press is being used to duplicate and distribute pieces of literature all throughout Europe. No matter what century we explore, one thing will always be found, art. Visual art, music, and literature can all be found throughout all eras of time, being used as a way to tell stories, express emotions, and bring people together.
Many communities have recognized the importance of art in a society and have used that to their advantage. The founders of City of Asylum knew that the best way to integrate the exiled authors with the community would be through the universally spoken language of art. This realization led them to use a method known as creative placemaking. Through creative placemaking, they began to build the center of the North Side community around art and artists. They began holding readings, organizing concerts, and displaying house publications in order to bring the community together. Eventually, so many people participated in these events, the City of Asylum began setting up an event tent in a lot next door to their office building. They held jazz concerts and poetry readings every week throughout the summer, giving people the chance to connect and interact with others throughout the community.
As the success of these events grew, the founders of City of Asylum decided they needed to do something bigger. Their vision was to create a place where people could find comfort in the arts. A place where those people who may be starting over, much like the exiled writers staying at the City of Asylum, could find refuge and meet people who shared an interest in art. A place where people could gather and exchange cultural views and create new experiences. Their vision led them to create Alphabet City.
Located in the former Masonic Hall in the North Side village of Pittsburgh, Alphabet city is a cultural center that brings people together through art, music, and literature. It is a place where people feel welcomed, no matter what their background may be. Before we go on an envisioned journey through the Alphabet City Center, you must understand the three different types of space we will be encountering in order to fully appreciate all aspects of the center.
Space as explained by Edward Soja
Edward Soja postulated that there are three types of space for any given place; perceived, conceived, and lived. These different types of space give us a way to fully understand and appreciate a building or location on multiple levels. It’s a tricky concept to fully grasp, but once you understand it your perspective of places you might pass through every day will change.
First up is the idea of perceived space. This is the most obvious and probably the most easily described. Perceived space is what you see. It’s that simple. For example, let’s envision a local library. You walk in through the main entrance, and what do you see? Let’s say in this particular library you see a check out station, desks, a row of computers, and bookshelves lining the walls. These are all tangible things that would be seen by anybody who walked through those doors. Perceived space is a constant, unless if it is physically altered.
Up next is the idea of conceived space. This one is a little more abstract, but it still is not impossible to understand. Conceived space is what comes to mind when you hear the name of a place; the opinions and emotions connected to a certain location. Let’s say that we take that same library and before entering we ask people what they think of when they hear the term “library”. The answers will change from person to person depending on their experiences or their previous knowledge of libraries. Some people may envision a large, silent building that comes with intimidating looks from the old librarian. Others may envision something more majestic and exciting, such as a room filled with bookshelves stacked to the ceiling with books; a scene straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Depending on who you ask, the conceived space shifts and changes. Even if you ask the same person, their conceived space may shift over time. Often, conceived space is affected by memories that the person connects to that place, which brings us to our third concept of space.
The final concept of space is lived space. Lived space is made up of people’s personal memories connected to the mentioned site. Any memories or experiences someone connects to a certain place contributes into the lived space of a site. Let’s go back to the local library. One person may think back to their college days, spending hours upon hours cramming for their college finals. Because of their past experiences, or their lived space, their conceived space is affected and may lean more towards having a negative connotation. Another person may have memories of going to the library every weekend with their grandparents and picking out a new book to read. For this individual, their memories connected to this library are ones of excitement and anticipation. Their lived space would positively affect their conceived space by creating positive feelings towards a library. Lived space changes from person to person and creates endless stories within a single place.
Using these ideas of multiple types of space as you explore Alphabet City will help you appreciate the space more. You’ll find yourself making connections between tangible, perceived space, with the abstract, ever-changing conceived and lived space.
Exploring Alphabet City
As I’m writing this, I have yet to visit the Alphabet City Center. It is not yet open, but the City of Asylum hopes it will be opened by the summer of 2016. You may wonder why I’m so interested in a space I’ve never even seen. Honestly, it isn’t the specific building of Alphabet City that has my interest. Rather, I’m inspired by everything the project stands for and what the City of Asylum is hoping to accomplish through opening this cultural center in Pittsburgh. The City of Asylum is taking an abandoned, broken down building and transforming it into a place for people to connect through the arts. They are transforming and transcending all aspects of the Masonic Hall’s space in order to turn it into a tool of creative placemaking.
First, they transformed the perceived space through the renovations of the building. If you would have walked into the new location of Alphabet City five years ago, you would have been unimpressed. The floors would have been covered in dust, windows would have been broken and walls would have been caving in. Now when you walk into the building, you’re amazed by the openness and beauty of the entire building. Whether you’re standing in the performance space, eating dinner in the Caselulla Wine & Cheese Café, browsing the bookstore, or contemplating renting one of the apartments, you’re guaranteed to be both inspired and impressed by the new space of the building. A previously dark, dusty, and depressing interior was converted into a welcoming, inspiring space.
Through changing the perceived space, the City of Asylum also impacted the conceived aspect of space. Prior to the renovations, the building was undesirable and nobody would have spent their time wondering what was hidden within its walls. It was an unwanted space connected to many negative preconceptions. Now, however, the building has a new ambiance that attracts people and inspires creativity. A space where people can go to relax and indulge in arts of all forms. With its welcoming interior and its vast variety of activities, it has been converted into a place where people can get together and exchange cultural creations.
The space of Alphabet City is not done finished changing, and it never will be. Long after the renovations are done, the lived space will be a continuous evolution of memories. With every visit, people will slowly transform the lived space. It may be by having a romantic dinner with a significant other or going with a group of friends to enjoy a jazz performance. Whatever people decide to indulge in at the Alphabet City, they will leave with memories and connections that they will reminisce on for years to come. Much like the writers-in-residence at City of Asylum left their impression through the house publications, Alphabet City is a blank canvas waiting for you to leave your mark.
“Memories tie us to that place… It’s personal not interesting to anyone else, but after all that’s what gives a neighborhood its character.”
-Michael de Certeau (Walking in the City)
Serendipity and Sanctuary
One afternoon, a man with a calloused right hand and coarse voice gave a talk in Pittsburgh. This man’s name was Salman Rushdie and the Iranian government wanted him dead. Why? Iran wanted him dead because of a novel he wrote, The Satanic Verses. In his novel, Rushdie used magical realism and contemporary events to frame a story around Islam and the prophet Muhammad. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, believe Rushdie to be a threat to “his” Iran.
“From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”
-Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
With the prospect of death constant and the ability to fight the injustice impossible, Salman Rushdie found himself protected by cities of refuge. Now many years after his persecution, he stands in front of a crowd to speak about his experiences. In this talk he mentioned the network of European cities that are sanctuaries for exiled and endangered writers. This network was made by ICORN, which is an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk. They strive for the advancement of freedom of expression, to defend democratic values, and to promote international solidarity. He came to speak in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges, we’re 446 total bridges connect roads and those roads connect people. With serendipity on their side, two important individuals were in the crowd, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels. These two looked at each other. What if we could help? Pittsburgh is ready. We are ready. Can Pittsburgh join this network? Six years later they received a response, yes.
A City of Bridges
Pittsburgh is a fickle city. It has developed from a trade post on the Ohio River, to a city producing more steel than clean lungs, to a cultural center with artistic intent. The City of Asylum is one of the most important additions to the city of Pittsburgh. The City of Asylum is a sanctuary for writers who are persecuted in their home country for their works. They come to it seeking refuge, but Pittsburgh gives them more. The City of Asylum focuses greatly on how to engage differing groups from around the city through the power of creative expression. However this is not a new idea, Pittsburgh has a history of inclusivity of differing groups. After all, Pittsburgh is the City of Bridges.
For instance, the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District in 1909 was a Jewish community center that was open to all races, ethnicities, and religions. The settlement offered specialized educational courses to teach new immigrant English and skills to find a job (Pittsburgh: the real City of Brotherly Love by Dan Lampmann). The neighborhood of Oakland has historically been an ethnically diverse area. In a 1977 atlas of the area it was said, “Italians, Blacks, Jews, Syrians, and Poles have long been permanent residents…Approximately 88 foreign countries are represented in the student body of the University of Pittsburgh.” (An Atlas of the Oakland Neighborhood of Pittsburgh 1977). Even today, December 17, 2015, there are 165 days until Pittsburgh’s Pride Festival for LGBTQIA+ community. Pittsburgh’s bridges connect us all to one another through intertwined roads, but not all roads are always open. There are always a few bridges that are shut down, dilapidated, or structurally unsound. These need architects to build them up.
Like any city, Pittsburgh is not without its faults and tragedies. The Hill District riots from April 5th, 1968 to April 12th in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the 2015 shooting of a Muslim taxi driver due to religious tension show that Pittsburgh is still striving to be better. These are the bridges that are currently decaying and shut down. Over time the things holding the bridges together have fallen away and left the bridges in need of support. How can we rebuild? What can we do?
The City of Asylum can and is rebuilding those damaged bridges with the easiest and most difficult action: connecting people through a social sanctuary.
What does it mean to be a sanctuary? A sanctuary could be an oasis with palm trees surrounded by desert, a coffee shop table that tilts when you elbows hit it as you lean forward, what about four homes and a few writers. In a city, a sanctuary is where all citizens can come and be welcomed with open arms not pointing fingers. Sanctuaries are meant to stay compact, but in this massive world, what if a city could be a sanctuary for an entire country? First, there must be a catalyst and the City of Asylum is just that in Pittsburgh.
The City of Asylum is the diamond in the rough. It was brought to the city in 2004. Since that time it has built a following of Pittsburghers who want to see it flourish. As a refuge of writers, it must provide a living stipend, medical benefits, and the house for them to live. The writers must do their part to contribute to the community by taking part in events. As the writers take part in this, they build relationships with their community members and friendships are born. Now think about how this can influence a city. Pittsburgh can take notes on the way that the City of Asylum functions to be that beacon of hope and color in an otherwise semi-somber city. It is a social sanctuary where endangered writers can go, but also where those who have a natural curiosity of the new and different can seek out those things. In Philip Sheldrake’s paper titled Placing the Sacred: Transcendence and the City he said,
“Architects and planners will be genuinely ethical and spiritual forces in city-making, when they leave behind the temptation to become Olympian social engineers and empower citizens in their quest to articulate for themselves a common ethos that engages not only with sacred spaces in the city but with the sacredness of human life as whole.” (Map from 1872)
Think about it, Pittsburgh is the City of Bridges. It connects people to people, but there are always bridges shut down and in need of rebuilding. City planners and architects must be the ones to rebuild the bridges with the new technology and information, and in doing so connecting those who weren’t before. The City of Asylum is an architect that is building a place of worship of a secular voice, the arts. Since 2004, it has had cross-cultural events and interaction. In 2014, they held book releases, public screenings, the choir performances by the Gold Tunes Choir, Lost and Found: Finding Refuge in Pittsburgh a play was performed, they held a Jazz Poetry Concert, and even the We Are the Rest of Change: Hip Hop Havana Style event was held there. City of Asylum is doing its part to build a social sanctuary for its writers in exile and for Pittsburghers. Asylum seekers are there to find a sanctuary to never have to look over their shoulders like Salman Rushdie. They are looking for a place to live where a community is there to find and welcome them. The City of Asylum’s placement on 400 Sampsonia Way, an alley, foster a close knit group that is based out of similar belief of freedom of expression, and this group continues to grow. It was started as a place to give exiled and endangered writers space to live free of persecution. It was a place for “the others” of the world who need help. It was started to give something to another, but it’s grown into something more. The City of Asylum is a beacon of hope for any global citizen to find sanctuary and community and as long as it remains one of Pittsburgh’s architects, the decaying bridges of the city, like prejudice and bigotry, will be rebuilt and become the beacon’s shining light.
It’s a brisk Friday in November. I should have worn a jacket. My sweatshirt isn’t enough. Strolling down a narrow corridor of trashcans and stoops I see four beautiful murals. They mark my arrival at my destination. Feeling isolated between the stones of brick and concrete slabs, I feel anxious, but not worried. How will he be? Will I be able to understand him? What can I ask him? None of those are answered before Yaghoub Yadali steps out of the former crack house, now monument of Burmese religious figures. Yaghoub is serene in posture with eyes made for appraising. He joins the group, and we find a place to congregate. He begins to read from his book, Rituals of Restlessness. He concludes after a few minutes and asks, “would you like to hear about my 41 days in Iranian prison?” I fold up my tongue and put it away because my words should not share the same space as his. He talks about his interrogation process. He talks about his background as a television producer. He talks about his time as a child reading, filming, and writing. He makes jokes and I laugh. He thanks us for listening. We applaud. He returns to his residence and continues to write.
That day, I spoke to a television producer and writer from Iran who was jailed for 41 days because of his novel. I spoke to him in a driveway in the Northside of Pittsburgh. He told jokes, smiled, and laughed. Have you ever been instantly leveled by someone? Yaghoub Yadali did that too me. He is only one of the writers to stay at the City of Asylum as a writer-in-residence. He has left now. He has moved on to a new program. I wish I had the chance to talk to him more. I wish I could know how he got through being in prison. I wish I knew how he continues to write even in the face of the government. I wish I knew these answers, and I’m sure you do too. Where can you talk to someone like Yaghoub? The City of Asylum.
Don’t you want to know who will be living there next?
“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
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