By Cheryl Bauer
Alphabet City (Photo: Cheryl Bauer)
The vibrant Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side has long been the center of an eclectic arts community, home to the Mattress Factory, Randyland, and other curiosities. It was only natural that here the writers-in-residence at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh would once again find their freedom to create.
City of Asylum, founded in Pittsburgh in 2004 by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, works with International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) to provide shelter to exiled writers, many unable to continue their work due to political opposition in their home countries. Pittsburgh is one of four participating U.S. cities, and has been home to seven writers-in-residence since 2004, when Chinese poet Huang Xiang came to the Steel City.
Though at first timid, Xiang later fully embraced his liberation, reciting his poetry from his doorstep and later painting his home’s exterior with broadstroke calligraphy of his work. Now called “House Poem”, his was the first in a tradition of “house publications” – contributions of writings, murals, and other art installations to several homes by residents in years since.
This narrow alley became the namesake of City of Asylum’s publishing arm and the hub of City of Asylum activities, public readings, naturalization ceremonies, and eventually an annual Jazz Poetry Concert, until a new opportunity emerged.
After extensive redevelopment of the dilapidated Masonic Hall building located at 40 W. North Avenue, Alphabet City opened its doors to the community on January 13, 2017, with a goal to become a literary center amplifying the voices of their writers-in-residence and other artists from around the globe. During a ceremony to mark the occasion, twenty resident immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens, including Silvia Duarte, Program Director for City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. “The ceremony was truly emblematic of the mission of City of Asylum,” she says, recalling past years when these ceremonies were held outdoors at Sampsonia Way. Silvia came to Pittsburgh from Guatemala with her former partner, writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, when he was accepted as the second City of Asylum resident writer in 2007.
U.S. citizenship is a goal for each refugee, in addition to becoming selfsufficient. To that end, City of Asylum provides writers and residents housing, medical coverage, stipends for living expenses, and assistance to obtain permanent residency status. As a result, writers-in-residence are free to fully engage in their work and develop a stable life in the U.S. without fear of political consequences. Current writers in-residence are Israel Centeno of Venezuela, Tuhin Das of Bangladesh, and Osama Alomar of Syria, and City of Asylum is working to shelter another writer from Sudan.
Named for the collection of alphabets adorning the glass-encased entrance to the building, Alphabet City is a haven embodying the spirit of the City of Asylum mission. City of Asylum Books, on the right, boasts an extensive international collection, specializing in English translation of international works for readers of all ages and interests, and hosts a monthly book club. The bistro on the left, Brugge on North, was opened in 2018 to rave reviews and offers lunch, coffee, dinner and drinks in an open air setting. Nestled between the two is a cozy lounge facing a central stage.
In its first year of operation, Alphabet City hosted 150 events, all free to the public, and is keeping the pace well into 2018 with an event calendar packed with activities for all ages. Several readings are held each week, featuring works of international fiction and topics related to global human rights and freedom of speech.
For children 4-10, there is a monthly reading series, “Let’s Travel the World,” and authors from around the globe share stories and traditions from their native countries. Children are encouraged to return each month to earn a stamp on their “passport” to document their travels via story.
Alphabet City hosts a variety of music events year-round featuring local musicians, including a monthly chamber music presentation in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the annual Jazz Poetry Festival in September. In partnership with ReelQ: Pittsburgh’s International LGBTQ Film Festival and Sembéne – The Film & Art Festival, Alphabet City hosts regular screenings of international films featuring LGBTQ artists and African and African-American filmmakers.
The City of Asylum program has introduced a new element of diversity to the Steel City, and a reminder that our differences make us stronger when we care enough to nurture each other. Thanks to the work and vision of the City of Asylum Pittsburgh, Alphabet City has taken the next step to bring the work of international and disenfranchised writers to a new audience and has earned a reputation as a local destination for literary and musical arts. More information about Alphabet City events and programming can be found at http://www.alphabetcity. org/.
Cheryl Bauer is a member of the New People Editorial Collective.