City of Asylum/Pittsburgh offers writers in exile sanctuary alongside expansive creative placemaking
“Asylum” – A place offering protection and safety; a shelter.
“Silence is death.
If you are silent you are dead,
And if you speak you are dead,
So speak and die.”
– Assassinated Algerian writer Tahar Djaout
In 1997, Salman Rushdie gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh, at which he spoke on the Cities of Asylum network in Europe, a program he helped launch which offers one to two years of support to endangered writers in exile. Between 800 and 900 writers are killed, persecuted, or simply disappear each year.
Rushdie experienced first-hand the dangers and struggles a writer in exile faces after he himself was forced into hiding when the Supreme Leader of Iran issued a fatwa ordering his execution over his seminal work The Satanic Verses. He was fortunate enough to have the resources to protect himself – though even his resources were exhausted by the ordeal – but the overwhelming majority of other writers facing persecution do not, which led him spearheading the formation of the International Parliament of Writers and the Cities of Asylum.
Ralph Henry Reese and Diane Samuels attended the talk and, says Reese, kicked each other under the table in a mutual “a-ha!” moment. They had just acquired a house at a sheriff’s sale that had previously been a drug den. They were renting it out but didn’t want to be landlords, so they wrote to the Cities of Asylum administration in Europe expressing interest in providing a place for a writer to live.
It was years before they heard back until finally, in 2003, they got an email saying that novelist Russell Banks was interested in expanding the program in the United States.
This was the start of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, a project that began at the confluence of opportunity and availability and has since become a national leader in creative placemaking, economic and housing development, and community engagement through the arts.
Two other cities also launched a City of Asylum program, Las Vegas and Ithaca, but City of Asylum/Pittsburgh is unique in that it is a wholly independent, grassroots organization, and not part of a formal institution (both the Las Vegas and Ithaca programs are hosted through universities).
“A writer in exile needs a home, and to have a home they need a community and to feel like a part of a place,” Reese explains. “They need to know it’s people who are welcoming them and not an institute where their first thought is, ‘What’s my next institutional appointment?'”
In 2004 City of Asylum/Pittsburgh opened its doors in Pittsburgh’s North Side, a gentrifying neighborhood that was mostly abandoned when Reese and Samuels moved there in the 1980s but still has a positive mix of ethnicities and incomes today. The organization initially offered the same resources as of Cities of Asylum – two years of free housing along with a host of social support services, medical care, and an annual stipend of $25,000; all of the essentials that a person needs to build a life.
It was pretty much by accident that COA/P then got involved with community engagement and creative placemaking, says Reese.
They had the house where the first writer in exile, a Chinese poet named Huang Xiang, was going to live with his wife, where he was going to sit and write, “the least engaging thing in the world,” Reese jokes. As he later found out, Xiang had been imprisoned for 12 years in China and had never been allowed to publish, though other Chinese poets considered him to be one of the most important of them all since he was living and writing in China all through the second half of the twentieth century, from the beginning of the Mao era through the economic reform.
The first thing Xiang did when he moved in was paint an anthology of poetry and calligraphy on the outside of the house.
“While he’s doing this we’re out there on the street taking photographs and documenting it,” Reese recalls. “He’s really energetic and extraordinarily charismatic; the best poetry performer you’ve ever seen.”
A group of teenaged girls from the neighborhood approached Reese to ask who this guy painting weird symbols on the house was. “He’s a famous Chinese poet,” he told them, and asked if they wanted his autograph. “Well, ‘famous’ is good, ‘Chinese’ and ‘poet’ they weren’t so sure about, but in the end ‘famous’ won out!”
So Xiang gave them a performance, screaming, diving on the ground, reciting one of his poems in Chinese, then getting up to take a bow.
“Their jaws dropped,” says Reese. “Then they asked, ‘Can you do another one?'” Despite the girls not knowing Chinese (and Xiang only speaking a few words of English), his performance still spoke to them. “Art is a way to close this understanding. There’s something there to bridge all of these missing parts. In a way this is where it all begins, with the artist engaging with the community, [communicating universal human experiences even in a different language].”
Xiang wanted to engage with the community and his house with all of the Chinese writing on it became a local landmark. Reese and Samuels decided to give him more of an opportunity to reach the community, but wondered how long people could watch a Chinese poet if they weren’t poetry aficionados. They began looking for jazz musicians to work on an act in collaboration with Xiang, and finally connected with renowned jazz saxophonist Oliver Lake.
Reese laughs about telling Lake, “‘We don’t have any money. Would you like to put a concert on in the street, outdoors, with a poet who only speaks Chinese, and also he’s deaf? And would you pay your own way to come here and work on an act with him?’ And he said okay!”
Lake and Xiang put together a 40-minute act with music and poetry, and Reese and Samuels set up an area outside with 150 chairs. Suddenly they had 300 people at the free event. “Everything we do is free and meant to remove barriers of access and gather members of the community in a common space,” he says. After this first performance people told him, “This got to the core of my humanity.” Everything about the setting, the poetry, the mission of COA/P – people who attended all felt a deep importance to it on an emotional level.
This was really the beginning of the work COA/P would become known for.
The next year Reese and Samuels decided to change their program a bit. “It can take longer than two years for a writer to become sustainable in a community,” Reese explains. “We changed it to say that we would not provide economic support but would also never ask anyone to leave their house. The writer could be there rent-free as long as they need to. So now we needed another house because the second writer was coming!”
Over the next 10 years, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh would purchase four more houses as well as an apartment building, playing host to writers in exile as well as offering artist residency programs in partnership with the University of Iowa. They have hosted 280 artists from 57 different countries. They continue to work with Lake and other jazz musicians on annual collaborations that are now held in a park under a huge outdoor tent with space to accommodate 800 people. This has become the signature event of the community, but is just one of many events COA/P organizes, which now include a “Writers in the Gardens” series in which writers give readings in the gardens of North Side neighborhood homes, a “Digital Sanctuaries Tour” that combines site-specific poetry and music guided by a smartphone app, and a host of other readings, live performances, music events, and workshops. They also launched a publishing arm called Sampsonia Way, through which they publish an online literary journal by the same name as well as books from their writers in exile.
At some point Reese saw some information about something called “creative placemaking.” He thought to himself, “Oh, that’s kind of what we’re doing! There’s a framework for discussing and thinking about this!”
Through the lens of creative placemaking, COA/P won multiple grants through various foundations – including the Ford Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Buhl Foundation, ArtPlace, the Heinz Endowments, National Endowment for the Arts, and many more – which gave them the resources to do their work in what Reese calls “a more orderly way.” They are now considered among the best examples of arts-based placemaking in the country.
COA/P has nearly $1.5 million in housing that they have rehabilitated and transformed into public art pieces as well as artist homes, in addition to blight elimination and environmental remediation work they have done alongside the housing development, and other arts-based placemaking projects like the Garden-to-Garden Trail, a walking path with public art installations that ends at the Alphabet Reading Garden, a $500,000 garden project currently under construction.
They are also working on an $8 million overhaul of the Masonic Hall called Alphabet City Center. This will be the anchor tenant of the massive Garden Theater block renovation. The Center will serve as a community center and social hub where COA/P can program year-round arts events in addition to building out a bookstore, bar and restaurant, workshop and reading space, with eight income-generating apartments overlooking the park on the upper floors.
All because of an email that took six years before it get a response.
“Everything we’ve done is with the idea of creating a sanctuary and a better home,” says Reese. “We’re making a better home for everybody, now with economic development as the leading developer of core the business area. We’re spurring all this development in an integrated way and enlivening the space with art.”