City of Asylum

by Jessica Walker

To walk down Sampsonia Way is to walk into a children’s picture book.

A mural of a saxophone–painted the colors of a Caribbean sunset–spans the side of one house. The storm door of another features swirling text sandblasted into its glass. Yet another has white calligraphy crawling over its wooden sides like ivy.

These houses aren’t just buildings. They are the voices of City of Asylum.

City of Asylum is a nonprofit that provides sanctuary for international literary writers who have been persecuted or exiled for their craft. It opened its doors on Northside’s Sampsonia Way in 2004, and has since evolved into a thriving community that celebrates the freedom of expression. Their mission is to encourage cultural exchange through literary and art-based programs.

“We’re not just identifying underserved voices and nurturing them,” says City of Asylum’s cofounder and president R. Henry Reese. “We’re also engaging audiences with these voices so they have an impact.”

Other Cities of Asylum exist throughout Europe and the United States, but the one in Pittsburgh is a grassroots organization supported by individual contributions and foundations, including the Lea Simonds Foundation.

Exiled writers-in-residence receive a house, stipend, medical benefits, and other assistance as needed. In turn, writers refine their craft and engage in public events. Although typical residencies require writers to leave their house after a specified term, City of Asylum emphasizes sustainability and community. Upon the conclusion of a two-year residency, writers and their families can continue living on Sampsonia Way free of charge until they earn enough income to afford rent.

City of Asylum’s first writer-in-residence was Chinese writer and poet Huang Xiang. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Xiang actively involved himself within his new neighborhood. Since his works had been repressed in his native country, he painted excerpts of his poems in white calligraphy outside of his house.

Xiang’s contributions inspired later editions of these “house publications.” While rehabilitating buildings on Sampsonia Way for residencies, City of Asylum now commissions artwork that incorporates literary text for the exteriors. Completed projects include the Jazz House, Winged House, Pittsburgh-Burma House, and the original House Poem.

“[Xiang’s] desire to be in front of the whole community helped set the tone for how our City of Asylum would form,” says Reese. “He would tell us ideas that would lead us to think, ‘How can we do that? How can we make that a reality?’”

As the organization progressed, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh decided to hold a public reading and received a surprisingly large audience. Despite wondering if such a positive response was perhaps a one-time occurrence, Reese says they continued to arrange more events, each time with an increasing crowd.

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh currently hosts at least one or two public readings per month, as well as film screenings, workshops, and music concerts like Jazz Wednesdays.

“All of this happened organically,” says Reese. “We observed what happened with every undertaking, and were pleased to discover there’s an on-tap demand for what we’re bringing.”

These programs developed into the framework for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s creative placemaking. In creative placemaking, collaborations between public institutions, non-profit organizations, and private citizens leverage the arts as a means to enhance communities while inspiring social change.

In summer 2016, City of Asylum opened Alphabet City Center. The center features additional space for events, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

Reese notes the new space will add even more public programs and opportunities to an already growing list. “Hospitality is a core value. We’re aiming to make a community where people can come together to discuss issues in an empathetic way.”

The Sampsonia Way online literary magazine provides a digital venue to celebrate freedom of expression and bring an international presence to City of Asylum. Writers throughout the world contribute creative works, reaching readers anywhere from the United States to Ethiopia.

“You have to wonder why a dictator or government cares about a poet who writes about nature. Why is it so threatening?” says Reese. “Art is so powerful because it imagines the changes possible.”