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.

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.


duarte portrait

Silvia Duarte, originally from Guatemala and now managing editor of Sampsonia Way magazine, in front of one of the City of Asylum homes.

Photo by Martha Rial   

The Urban Homestead

Reese and Samuels’ purchase of a half-dozen small buildings and similar investment by the Mattress Factory and its founder, Barbara Luderowski, had a ripple effect during the past several decades.

The trio—the imperious museum head; the slender, outgoing artist; and the bow-tied Reese—had no master plan. “It was classic bricolage,” says Reese, using an artist’s term for creations that use materials at hand. But as new residents put down roots, crime has been reduced by nearly 50 percent during the past few years.

“This neighborhood has diversity—of all kinds, especially artistically,” says Shallary Boss, who has operated nearby Buena Vista Coffee with her husband, Brent, for the past 15 months. “It’s not unusual to have folks from five different countries sitting in here at once.”

For Khet Mar, imprisoned by the repressive Myanmar regime as a young student, Buena Vista has become a safe place to portray the realities of Burmese life as well as her current situation. “I tell my story over and over. I can’t cry anymore,” she says calmly.

After a childhood in the small fishing village of Maletto, Khet Mar joined student protests at Rangoon (now Yangon) University as the military regime of dictator Tham Shwe tightened its grip on the country. Arrested in 1991, she was incarcerated and tortured.

“I had many fears,” she explains. “I was afraid of [becoming] HIV-positive. In the winter we slept on a concrete floor, and most of the prisoners got sick. A nurse came every day to inject us with medicine, but she used the same needle for all the prisoners.”

Released a year later, Khet Mar continued to write fiction but came under near-constant surveillance. “[There were] police every day—at the hostel, on the bus, at the tea shop,” she says now. Her work was censored. A fellowship at the University of Iowa in 2007 gave her a glimpse of another path. In March 2009, after a 55-hour journey, she and her family arrived in Pittsburgh.

Now enrolled in Pittsburgh schools, her sons “correct my English pronunciation,” she says, and they are quickly gaining friends and learning new skills like basketball. While she admits that the adjustment takes time, she has dipped into American culture, occasionally enjoying TV shows like “America’s Got Talent.”

A Safe Haven

Thirty years ago, Reese and Samuels were the newcomers here, among urban homesteaders buying run-down, city-owned properties.

“It was a community, not a homogenous neighborhood,” Reese recalls of those years.

From Luderowksi, the couple bought a former warehouse for parade floats, which didn’t have running water when they moved in. But during the next decade, they renovated the space and the adjoining rowhouse as living quarters and a studio space for Carnegie Mellon University-trained Samuels, whose meticulous three-dimensional work has been shown and commissioned widely in the United States and Europe.

In 1997, the couple attended a Pittsburgh lecture by novelist Salman Rushdie about threats to writers. “We nudged each other,” Samuels recalls. Why not create a safe house for international authors in Pittsburgh?

By that time, the couple owned a rental property that they fixed up along with several abandoned buildings awaiting rehab in the alley.

Reese, a successful telemarketing executive, arranged for artists’ stipends and health insurance. The couple reached out to European asylum programs but heard no response until early 2004 when American novelist Russell Banks sent them an e-mail. Banks, who was chairman of Cities of Refuge North America at the time, invited the couple to become part of an informal U.S. network identifying writers in danger and doling out potential two-year placements.



Than Htay Maung completes a painting that depicts a scene near his new home.

Photo by Martha Rial


The House Poet

The first COA/P writer to arrive on Sampsonia Way later that year set the tone by picking up a thick paintbrush. Huang Xiang, 70, spent 12 years in Chinese prisons for his literary writings in support of the Democracy Wall movement. After sequestering himself in his rehabbed home, the energetic, long-haired poet emerged, reinvigorated.

Undeterred by the fact that few of his new neighbors spoke Mandarin, he began giving impromptu shouted performances along his new street. Mounting a ladder, he brushed the bold characters of a new poem (translated by Andrew Emerson) on the front of his house: “I think you stayed in the colorful clouds behind me, my hometown crane; wherever I go, I meet you; from the sky over other parts of the world, your sharp, clear call comes down.”

“When I first walked up to the house, it was kind of spectacular,” recalls Banks. He attended Huang Xiang’s first public performance in Pittsburgh on the steps of his new home, which attracted 100 shivering fans. Their roars of approval echoed down the alley. The “House Poem” became a visible symbol of the neighborhood’s new identity. “We were blown away by the community response,” laughs Reese.

The poet found a new source of income, performing his poetry for live audiences. Now living in New York, Huang Xiang is fondly remembered.

“He was the most musical writer with his movements and sense of theater, even though I had no idea what he was saying,” chuckles Oliver Lake, a visiting artist at Sampsonia. The jazz saxophonist and artist, who specializes in adventurous collaborations, performed at the 2005 Jazz Poetry Festival held on Sampsonia Way with Huang Xiang.
Lake has been the musical curator and has headlined at the COA/P Jazz Poetry Festival each year since.

Last year, Lake, who resides in New Jersey, began to improvise on a different canvas, creating blue and yellow murals inside and out at his part-time residence in the alley. He will return to the Jazz House this spring to finish the painting and gain inspiration from the neighbors.

Voices in the Alley

“Aside from being unique as a sanctuary, Sampsonia Way is a place of a lot of creativity,” says the 68-year-old musician. “It’s valuable for me for expressing creativity in concerts, and it’s interesting to hear the stories of the different writers as they get their bearings and start over.”

In 2006, Lake performed at the Jazz Poetry Concert with Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, a human-rights activist and poet. Soyinka also left an imprint on the alley. An excerpt from The Man Died, his memoir of imprisonment during the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, has been inscribed on the glass door of a second COA/P guest house.

Generous neighbors assist with the writers’ transition, particularly the Reese and Samuels, who help connect the COA/P writers with tasks from children’s school enrollment to medical care.

“The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council has been a godsend,” says Reese. “Bob Whitehill, an immigration attorney, has been very helpful. And Owen Cantor, a Pittsburgh dentist, has donated a great deal of time to our writers and their families.”

In fact, Cantor repaired the extensive damage to Huang Xiang’s mouth suffered during torture in prison. Thanks to Cantor, he recovered the ability to speak clearly.

Most important, work that COA/P writers have produced in Pittsburgh is being published, both in the U.S. and in their countries of exile. Horacio Castellanos Moya, a novelist from El Salvador who lives here, will publish his third novel, Tyrant Memory, through New Directions Press this year.

His partner, Silvia Duarte, has translated a career as a magazine editor for El Periódico, a daily Guatemalan newpaper, into directing an online literary magazine for COA/P.

Named for the street, Sampsonia Way features creative work and interviews with outspoken authors from around the world, including the Asylum writers and other local voices. Its 5,000 readers are “those that care about freedom of speech,” Duarte says, relaxing in the front room of the House Poem, the magazine’s current headquarters.

“The magazine extends the physical world to the digital world,” says Reese. “It protects creative free speech without endangering the writers.” Shielding the COA/P writers even after their arrival in the United States is important, he says. “Their pasts have repercussions, both for them and for their families and friends back home.”

Duarte is encouraged that Australian and English readers have taken action on behalf of a recent Burmese dissident interviewed in the magazine, giving him the possibility of asylum in the West. And she is enjoying a newfound sense of community after three years in Pittsburgh. Following a recent visit to her family, Duarte says, she returned to Pittsburgh to find three e-mails. “All said the same thing: ‘Welcome home,’” she remembers.



North Side residents Henry Gonzales (front), originally from Venezuela, and Daniel Finely, from the Czech Republic, gather at Buena Vista Coffee.

Photo by Martha Rial


A New Life

While each artist arrives with an assurance of two years’ welcome, many further extend their stays on Sampsonia Way as they make a new home there. That’s partly an acknowledgement of the difficulties of making a living in a new society.
“Our writers must gain financial independence without interfering with the ability to write, or we fail. Ours is not a visiting-artist program,” explains Reese. “It’s potentially a new life.”

Banks agrees. He says city asylum programs throughout the country, which now include L.A. and Miami, need flexibility for success, and he credits Reese and Samuels with the “dedication and stubbornness” that make COA/P a national model: “It absolutely wouldn’t have happened without them. I know the kind of energy it takes, having worked with other people and other countries. To my amazement, year in and year out, they keep expanding, making it more coherent. It has their personalities.”

Meanwhile, the Mattress Factory, long welcoming to international artists, has found ways to collaborate with the talent outside its door. The museum featured work by Than Htay Maung in a recent “Gestures” exhibit. And in May, the museum will open “Neighbo(u)rhood,” an exhibit inspired in part by its Irish curator’s visits to the North Side.

While living on nearby North Taylor Street during a Mattress Factory residency, Dubliner Georgina Jackson was struck by the contradictions of the museum’s surroundings. “A neighborhood is a way of considering how we relate to other people—the friend, the enemy,” says the young curator.

Samuels (along with Dawn Weleski) will represent Pittsburgh in the international show and has taken the street itself as a subject. In her ongoing exploration of the physical street surface, with its striations and cracks, she has created more than 5,800 digital images mounted in glass tiles to map the surface of the street and has created paper-pulp impressions of its texture.

“As an artist, I’m committed to this street. It’s a focus in my own practice,” she says of the latest extension of the six-year project.

Meanwhile, COA/P expects to welcome a Kenyan writer as a short-term visitor this spring and is currently seeking referrals for the next exiled writer.

And Reese envisions a new life for three abandoned properties around the corner on Monterey Street—a former bar, a vacant lot and an adjoining row house—for a public space for local artists. The proposed literary center would include a café, bookstore and spaces for readings.

For the glass-enclosed courtyard that would replace the vacant lot, artist Samuels has already designed a protective grillwork that entwines handwritten letters contributed by writers, visitors, volunteers and neighbors. That’s appropriate, she says, because “we write it together.”

Christine O’Toole is a feature and travel writer based in Pittsburgh. She wrote “Great Places to Work” for the October 2010 issue.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, From the Magazine