City of Asylum: Helping persecuted artists in Pittsburgh

Brian Kaminski and Cindy Nichols may have a Pittsburgh mailing address, but they really live in the middle of a city most people haven’t heard of: The City of Asylum.

The block-long stretch of Allegheny City’s Sampsonia Way seems like little more than a small alley filled with row houses, but it’s a big deal to writers fleeing persecution. That’s because the nonprofit City of Asylum/Pittsburgh has provided a select few exiled scribes with two years’ free housing, health care and access to social services as well as resettlement into the U.S.

Kaminski, ’92, who holds a degree from the College of Built Environments, and Nichols, ’93, who has a degree from the College of Arts & Sciences, weren’t initially involved with the nonprofit until the world came to their doorstep in 2014. That’s when Chinese writer Huang Xiang moved in next door. They were actually more concerned with making their once-dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood north of downtown Pittsburgh safer.

Xiang, often referred to as China’s Emerson, made an immediate impression by painting his poems on the side of his house in Chinese calligraphy and offering impromptu readings whenever anyone knocked on his door—even if they didn’t understand Chinese.

Those performances became so popular that the City of Asylum staged its first Jazz Poetry Concert near the couple’s house because it didn’t have its own building for such activities. “They actually ran the power cord through our windows,” Nichols recalls.

Kaminski, Nichols and their son befriended Xiang and other new arrivals—taking the wife of an El Salvadoran author to English-as-a-second-language classes and introducing the sons of Burmese journalist Khet Mar to Halloween.

“We took the boys out trick-or-treating, which, in Pittsburgh is one of the highest holidays,” Kaminski says.

Kaminski became more involved with the City of Asylum when the architectural firm he works for was hired to help renovate an abandoned Masonic Temple three blocks from his house in North Pittsburgh. The initial project fell through but his firm stayed on when the nonprofit expressed interest in taking over the building.

After years of overcoming numerous obstacles, the Alphabet City bookstore finally opened in January 2017 with a naturalization ceremony, the largest selection of translated books in the country and a performance space with several readings every week. The building also houses Casellula Wine and Cheese Café, the City of Asylum’s offices and eight apartments that Kaminski helped design.

It’s hard to imagine Kaminski being any prouder of the project and his little slice of the city, even if he tried.

“I wouldn’t live any other place in Pittsburgh,” he said, adding, “I love my little neighborhood.”