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.
 

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in August

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in August

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh is booming. The Golden Triangle has grown in ways that previous generations may never have envisioned, and the perception of the neighborhood at the heart of Pittsburgh is changing rapidly –– for the better.
And The Winner Is....

And The Winner Is....

Meet the top vote getter in our 2016 Cutest Pet Contest.
The Region's Top Dentists 2016

The Region's Top Dentists 2016

Our latest list includes 368 topDentists in eight specialities from around the region.
The 10 Best Smiles in Pittsburgh

The 10 Best Smiles in Pittsburgh

Plus - we poll dentists included in our 2016 list of topDentists for their opinions and tips gleaned from years of experience in their profession.
Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

The first crop of chefs in the Strip District restaurant incubator are four real.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


ReplayFX Turns Convention Center Into Giant Arcade

ReplayFX Turns Convention Center Into Giant Arcade

The second annual gaming festival at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center brings 8-bits of weekend fun.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Eat, Drink and Learn: The Three Day Blow is Coming

Eat, Drink and Learn: The Three Day Blow is Coming

“A food and drink festival that’s deeply rooted in place — in this case Pittsburgh and the Rust Belt" is coming to Pittsburgh at the end of August.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

Grab your kits, scarfs and get ready to watch the Euro 2016 Pittsburgh-style. We'll show you where to go to get your fan on.

Comments


Garfield Bar Mixtape Is a Great Hangout (And a Good Bar, Too)

Garfield Bar Mixtape Is a Great Hangout (And a Good Bar, Too)

Part craft-cocktail joint and part coffee bar, the welcoming spot wants you to stay a while.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Optimism With An Asterisk As Good As It Gets In Steelers Training Camp

Optimism With An Asterisk As Good As It Gets In Steelers Training Camp

Although NFL teams never simply pick up where they left off the previous season, there’s reason to believe the 2016 Steelers could resemble the team that came agonizingly close to knocking off the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos in Denver last January.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Namaste! Sandals Made from Yoga Mats

Namaste! Sandals Made from Yoga Mats

Sanuk’s Yoga Sling Sandal are super comfy yet chic.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
"Bad Moms" and a Bad "Bourne" Make For a Rough Weekend

"Bad Moms" and a Bad "Bourne" Make For a Rough Weekend

Reviews of "Jason Bourne" and "Bad Moms," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
A Whimsical Wedding in Wonderland

A Whimsical Wedding in Wonderland

This Pittsburgh bride brought all the details together for a flawless “Alice in Wonderland”-themed wedding.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Coming Soon: Historic Lawrenceville Building Ready for Makeover

Coming Soon: Historic Lawrenceville Building Ready for Makeover

Real estate crowd-funding platform Small Change Pittsburgh is raising funds to transform the Butler Street building.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Online Education at Edinboro University Nationally Ranked

Online Education at Edinboro University Nationally Ranked

The university landed in the top 10 schools for disabled students seeking an online education.

Comments