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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

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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.
 

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