City of Asylum/Pittsburgh Firmly Rooted in Its North Side Neighborhood

Jun 27, 2013

“Cities of asylum” form a global network of support for oppressed and endangered writers.

In Europe they are supported by governments. In the United States they are usually sponsored by universities. City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, however, operates on a different model.

Rather than institutional sponsorship its support comes from some foundations and many individual donors. It's a grassroots organization, and it's are very much rooted in its neighborhood.

Neighbor Susan Steen said the programs presented by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh are what first drew her interest to the neighborhood.

Public presentations are not what City of Asylum/Pittsburgh set out to do. Inspired by the bestselling novelist Salman Rushdie, the group opened its doors in 2004 with the mission of providing sanctuary for writers under the threat of persecution and death.

Co-founder Diane Samuels said the programs grew out of “the passionate response” of the neighbors to exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang, their first artist-in-residence.

His spontaneous readings of his work were then combined with jazz performances, earning positive responses from neighbors and people drawn to the buzz. President and co-founder Henry Reese said the “jazz-poetry” events spawned more “consequent activities,” including a book launch for one of their artists.

They are now in the process of establishing a literary center on nearby North Avenue, which along with a new reading garden, will anchor an “artway.”

This will be a walkway showcasing artistic collaborations between neighbors and artists and going past their current properties on Sampsonia Way. The Alphabet City literary center and Alphabet reading garden will feature art incorporating handwritten alphabets in more than 40 languages.