The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) agreed to sell the Masonic Hall to the City of Asylum for $50,000—the clincher in a deal that has been in the works since 2008.

Soon the Masonic Hall will be home to City of Asylum’s literary events and readings along with workshops and musical performances—and the facility will be broadcast-enabled. The upper floors will be renovated into rental apartments. Called Alphabet City, this “home for writers, readers and neighbors” (as they bill it) will also feature a bookstore, a restaurant and a bar.

“Alphabet City is the apex of our aspirations,” says Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum. “In Europe, houses of literature promote the community,” he says. “There’s a lot of exchange going on between people—dialogues about literature, humanities and politics.”

That’s the model for Alphabet City.

“This will be a flexible space, everything will be able to be moved around. There will be few walls as the goal is to be able to host a variety of different audience numbers up to 200 people. “But we want it to stay fairly intimate as that is a scale that works for the literary audience,” says Reese.

The $8 million price tag for the Masonic Hall’s overhaul will be funded by a variety of sources including foundations, new market tax credit grants, grants from the state and a $250,000 grant from the Allegheny County Economic Development’s Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund.

This rehab is part of the Garden Theater block renovation, an undertaking that has met with fits and starts for years. But finally, things are moving. Read more about it here.

“We expect that it will take about ten months to do the construction,” says Reese. “Our target is to open sometime next year.” The project will create 30 jobs, some temporary (during the construction phase) and some long-term (after the center opens).

“This is the capstone to all of our development in the North Side,” he says.


City of Asylum built the Garden-to-Garden Trail, a walking path that features public art installations. Northside Crossing, the trail’s current installation, projects videos onto the windows of three North Side locations: the Carnegie Library, the Allegheny City Market and 400 Sampsonia Way. Videos run from sundown to midnight though Feb 14, 2015. Read more about it here. The Garden-to-Garden Trail will end the Alphabet Reading Garden (still in the works, slated to open this spring) on Monterey Street.

City of Asylum also curated Digital Sanctuaries, an app designed to accompany people with a musical score as they walk seven sites along the North Side. The idea? Remap cities with sanctuaries of music.

Arts-based community development is the idea behind the City of Asylum. In the seven years since they were founded, the group has presented more than 270 authors and musicians from 50 countries. They rehabbed a campus of houses that serves as homes for exiled writers, such as Yaghoub Yadali from Iran and Israel Centeno from Venezuela. To date, each writer-in-residence has produced a full-length work.

Jazz-Poetry Festival
Jazz-Poetry Festival

Each fall, the City of Asylum’s free Jazz-Poetry concert draws upwards of 700 people to the North Side.

Their publishing arm, Sampsonia Way (the name of the street where they are presently located) translates banned books and compiles anthologies of writing that comes from countries where speech is not free. They also publish an online journal, Sampsonia Way, that has a global audience.

Although Alphabet City will also attract an international audience, this is also a place that “welcomes the community‚” says Reese, “where neighbors can come in and see the arts.”

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.