City of Asylum: Meet the New Neighbors

Creative, quirky and caring, Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way is also the international Main Street for the City of Asylum program for writers, making sure the pen stays mightier than the sword.



Burmese writer Khet Mar and her husband, painter Than Htay Maung, in front of Maung’s mural.

Photo by Martha Rial

(page 1 of 4)

A gleaming 1950 Plymouth mounted on dozens of barefoot black feet. A brown clapboard house scrawled with graffiti in giant Chinese characters—and nearby another sprouting wooden wings. A vibrant mural on a brick row house that entwines shapely Burmese calligraphy with elegant figures.

Taking a turn onto Sampsonia Way in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side is like stepping through the looking glass. It’s the only alley in the city where the houses actually talk. Boldly inscribed with the words of defiant writers from around the world, the 19th-century buildings speak—loudly—for the artists who live and work there, connecting Pittsburgh to a courageous worldwide community of ideas and ideals.

For writers from China, El Salvador, Burma and other strife-ridden nations, Sampsonia Way is the last place they expected to live. After political threats, imprisonment and even torture in their native country, they have taken refuge here on a tiny one-way street that’s become an unlikely international enclave.
 

From Blight to Bright

Since 2004, Sampsonia Way has been home to City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, a program that gives exiled writers a home for two years with paid living expenses.

The program, established by street residents Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, found a perfect partner in the Mattress Factory, a freewheeling museum of contemporary installation art that has commanded the western end of the alley since 1977. The museum and the asylum program are unique in the United States, pulling curious visitors here from around the world.

Artists invited to create work at the Mattress Factory arrive from places across the globe—like Armando Marino, a Cuban exile who created the Plymouth installation recently displayed in the museum’s parking lot as part of “Queloides,” a show depicting the black experience in his homeland. Those short-term residents, given absolute freedom to create their works, rub shoulders with the exiled writers in City of Asylum properties and other ordinary folks who call Sampsonia Way home. The result: creative sparks and a neighborhood that finds surprising common ground.

“People are warm and respectful to us,” says soft-spoken Khet Mar, a 42-year-old Burmese writer who spoke limited English when she arrived here in 2009 with her artist husband, Than Htay Maung, and two young sons. “When we meet them, they greet us: ‘We know you guys!’” That’s partly due to the artwork created by Than Htay Maung, which punctuates the row homes with optimistic figures.

Daring to be different has become the DNA of the street.

“We are using the arts to connect because, otherwise, it’s hard to connect here,” explains Michael Olijnyk, the Mattress Factory’s co-director. “The North Side was sliced in half by six-lane highways.” Pockets of blight from the past four decades still exist. But what outsiders view as mean streets, locals embrace as a welcoming international community.

“[Burmese dissident] Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from prison meant something important to this neighborhood,” says Samuels.

Although the City of Asylum program is new to Sampsonia Way, the alley’s history actually traces back 150 years as a place of refuge. The courtyard of brick houses at the southeastern corner, neatly enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, was built as a home for those widowed and orphaned by the Civil War.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Check out three versions of the goal that sends the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final for a sixth time. (Hint) We think we saved the best for last.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

The Pittsburgh chapter of the USBG partners with Campari USA to create a calendar that will benefit Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

A win will send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals for a second year in a row and re-write team history.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

Reviews of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Baywatch," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

Pennsylvania native Jaclyn Jordan brings her newest collection to the Blanc de Blanc Bridal Boutique in Carrick.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Explore lavish homes and gardens with the West Allegheny Historic District’s annual Tour and Tasting, or go on the hunt for hidden treasure during The Great Mexican War Streets Yard Sale.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments