A wee alley, a world stage

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

by Diana Nelson Jones/Dec 16

Sampsonia Way getting chaired for the big concert, 2009, Renee Rosensteel photo

Sampsonia Way was saved from being just another busted-pavement Pittsburgh alley in 2004, and since then, a handful of writers have been living there, saved from persecution in their countries.

When Henry Reece and Diane Samuels, spouse cohorts, established City of Asylum/Pittsburgh from their Sampsonia Way home in the Mexican War Streets, they began collecting properties on the street and raising money to support this international enclave, bringing first the Chinese poet Huang Xiang, who was jailed for 12 years for supporting the Democracy Wall movement.

It is Huang's poetry that covers the exterior of one home on Sampsonia. Right beside it, the Tom Museum is decorated by Tom Sarver. ALthough the puppet-oriented museum is defunct, the building remains a tribute to the box of 64 Crayola Crayons.

Sampsonia Way now also has a house decorated by a mural and a short story by Burmese writer-in-exile Hnin Se.The Tom Puppet House and the Chinese Poetry house/ photo by Diana Nelson Jones

The alley is two blocks long, barely wider than a hallway but host to an annual September event that elevates the street and the neighborhood into the world's spotlight with a mesmerizing blend of readings and riffs. The Jazz Poetry Concert has featured the writers in exile and musicians on a stage at one end of the alley, with rows of chairs stretching all the way back almost to the alley's mouth on Monterrey Street.

I go every year, not because I love the music and not because I connect with all the words but because the total effect is so cosmopolitan and so thrilling... seeing scores of neighbors scattered among people from all over the city and other parts of the world. It is a High Pittsburgh Moment, of which this ‘burgh could use more.
AUdience facinf the stage/ photo Renee Rosensteel
City of Asylum/Pittsburgh has several much more significant judgments to celebrate: Last week, the NEA announced it would award a $10,000 grant for next year's Jazz Poetry Concert. And it won a 2009 MetLife Innovative Space award.  

"We were recognized for our writer-residency program on Sampsonia Way and for the way we have integrated the program into the deep fabric of the community," Henry wrote in an email.

The award honors innovate efforts to provide artists space to work in affordably and to integrate the artists' community into the overall neighborhood so that it contributes to other revitalization efforts.

The Chinese poetry house has become a micro tourist destination. I always take my visiting friends on a walk-through of Sampsonia Way, which also has an entrance to the Mattress Factory and a Zipcar site.

The New Yorker's George Packer visited recently and blogged about it. You can read his piece at
Read more about the space award:

Read more about the most recent Jazz Poetry Concert - an article written in September by my colleague, Bob Hoover -  at http://pg-library-01:8080/Save/classic/doc?docid=4034284&q=%22city%20of%20asylum/pittsburgh%22&stem=false&spaceop=AND&ttype=xsl&tval=headline_ppg&pos=4&hn=5&pubAbbrev=block&dtokey=ixioozqwqjb#anchor4034284


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