City Of Asylum Prepares To Launch Alphabet City And Expand Programming

Sep 9, 2016

The former Masonic temple in Pittsburgh's Mexican War Streets neighborhood is renovated as City of Asylum @ Alphabet City.
Credit City of Asylum

Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum started in 2004 with a mission of providing a voice and temporary home for one exiled, politically oppressed writer at a time. But that mission grew as its first resident Huang Xiang went out into the neighborhood, and painted his poetry on the outside of the house.

With the renovation of the former Masonic temple on Pittsburgh’s North Side nearly complete, City of Asylum will soon have a new permanent home with Alphabet City.

“Each program has been originally spawned between some kind of interaction between the community and a writer, sort of imaginations infecting one another,” said Henry Reese, the organization’s co-founder.

Reese said for the past decade, performances have taken place in the street, in his home, and under a tent. And it’s begun hosting more short-term artist residencies.

The first floor of the organization’s new building houses performance space, a bookstore specializing in translated literature and Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe of New York. The second floor is home to eight renovated apartment units, two of which offer affordable housing.

Reese said the permanent space means City of Asylum can be more flexible, visible and accommodating. It also makes year-round programming possible, he said. The organization hosted approximately 50 programs this year and has planned another roughly 100 for the coming year.

But institutionalizing has its challenges. City of Asylum is used to flying by the seat of its pants.

“Not having necessarily the stress of change will be something unusual,” said Reese. “How do we make sure we keep imaginative when we have more regularity?”

Reese said the organization is maturing in more ways than one.

“Part of this is about transitioning the organization from us, to a whole new generation,” he said. “We want to change the identity and free up the organization to think in a different way.”

Since co-founding the organization with his wife Diane, the two have brought on a staff of 10 people.

While construction on the multi-million-dollar Alphabet City project has fallen a bit behind, its inaugural address will be given this weekend by Belarusian journalist and Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich.

Reese said a visit by the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature is indicative of the reach and impact of City of Asylum in the global community.

Many more international visitors will stop in Pittsburgh for the upcoming month of jazz and poetry, consisting of multiple events, including one pairing writers from Estonia with a Russian saxophonist.

“This cross-cultural exchange and this fertilization, we’re very much in America a hybrid culture, it’s about this kind of mixing and free floating,” Reese said. “We all have identity and then we share identity. It’s all very fluid.”

All events are free, with the idea of bringing together different kinds of people.

“The idea of protecting the writer is propagated in a way. We’ve got a community now which understands making a better home for ourselves,” Reese said. “I think over time the presence and the programming begin to engage people into a common space. It’s not a space that’s owned by anybody in the community. It’s a space that we protect with purity in many ways. We have no self-interest.”

Alphabet City is expected to be ready in a few weeks.