The ambitious mission of City of Asylum has a home to match with the newly-opened City of Asylum @ Alphabet City in the grand former Masonic Hall at 40 W. North Ave. on the North Side.
The imposing structure, situated next door to the old Garden Theater and overlooking Allegheny Commons, has sat vacant since the mid-90s. Today, the building hosts a performance space, restaurant, bookstore, eight apartments and of course the headquarters for an organization whose mission is to provide sanctuary for exiled writers from around the world.
“The grandeur of the space is certainly beyond anything that could be replicated,” says Henry Reese, who along with partner Diane Samuels, was inspired to start City of Asylum after a 1997 speech by Salman Rushdie in Pittsburgh.
In 2004, City of Asylum hosted their first author in residence, Huang Xiang. The celebrated poet, twice placed on death row in his native China, is remembered locally for his House Poem at 408 Sampsonia Way, which transformed a former crack house into an internationally-recognized symbol of perseverance, hope and beauty.
Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum is one of more than 50 such organizations in the International Cities of Refuge Network, and also its U.S. headquarters. Pittsburgh’s branch is unique in that it is a stand-alone venture, unaffiliated with a university or similar nonprofit partner.
“From the inception it was a community-based model,” says Reese. “The idea then was that the writer-in-exile should become part of a community—not in isolation in an institution—if you’re looking at a new, long-term situation in life where you can’t return to your country.”
Reese says that as the organization’s public programs grew organically over time, so did its community of supporters. After years of hosting readings and other events in their North Side home, Reese and Samuels realized it was time for them to branch out. At one point they attempted to relocate to a former nuisance bar on Monterey Street but the move never panned out.
It was around that time they became interested in the former Masonic Hall, which they formally acquired from the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2015. Construction began that September and the building officially opened last month, an occasion celebrated with a swearing-in ceremony for 18 new American citizens. (More information on the $12.5 million buildout can be found in our article from May.)
When entering Alphabet City, one is greeted by a small stage and performance area, flanked to the left and right by the Casellula @ Alphabet City cheese and wine café (profiled recently in our Eat/Drink section) and City of Asylum Books, respectively. There are no walls between the different areas, and everything down to the sliding bookshelves can be reconfigured in minutes to suit whatever is happening in the space on any particular evening.
“We went around the country looking at different literary spaces and what other organizations are doing, and there’s really no clear analog to what we’re doing here,” says Reese. “We’re hoping it becomes a model for what might be possible in imagining these kinds of spaces.”
Over the years City of Asylum has welcomed more than 300 artists, musicians and writers from 63 countries for a variety of events. All of the public events at Alphabet City—from jazz concerts to poetry readings to movie screenings and more—are free. Reese says that by not charging for events it allows people to be more experimental and check out happenings they might not ordinarily pay for. It also allows for a more heterogeneous crowd and community.
“The audience itself became a little bit of the reason you came to events,” says Reese. “You are meeting people from all walks of life who had a common interest and were like-minded in many ways but not like-minded in all ways.”
This idea that arts and culture should be available to all is part of City of Asylum’s ethos, and their vision of the role that the arts play in transforming the community. It is hoped that the building’s redevelopment will kick-start the revitalization of the Garden Theater block.
“The opportunity of being placed with this location really says to the community—and the community saying to us—this is a core value,” says Reese. “This gives us the ability to expand our footprint to the greater North Side in a deeper way as opposed to being focused on the Central North Side.”
The new facility allows City of Asylum to plan events that engage artists and audiences in new and interesting ways previously unavailable to them. Reese uses the example of a webcast of exiled Iranian writers from all over the world broadcast to a live audience with a Q+A session at the end.
While the organization is overjoyed to see the growing popularity of events like the Jazz Poetry Concert, Reese says it is critical that they don’t overshadow why City of Asylum was first founded.
“It’s really important that our programs don’t lose sight of why we exist, which is to protect the writers and highlight the threats to creative expression.”
Asked about the name “Alphabet City,” Reese says it is at once a nod to the Alphabet City neighborhood in New York but also, more importantly, symbolic of the collective symbols from which all works of literature and written language are based.
“We think of this as a way for the community to write its future, together.”