Garden to Garden Artway

City of Asylum Pittsburgh

Funding Received: 2013
Pittsburgh, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
October 6, 2014

By Henry Reese

It’s true, you do make lemonade from lemons!  The opening event of our new Alphabet City center was to be a series of performances by the Allstar Refugee Band and the Archa Theatre from Prague. 10 musicians and actors were booked a year in advance for a 3-week residency to develop a new work. But we had a problem:  The developer of the building had not yet put together his financing for the building in which Alphabet City is tenant.

So we purchased a tent, equipped it with a stage and sound and lights, and made a temporary “Alphabet City” on 3 vacant lots in the middle of the Artway.  We then put together a “Summer on Sampsonia” series of concerts, readings, and neighborhood events, as well as offering up the tent to artists and community organizations for programs.  The launch event was a reading of Cave Canem poets.

Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel[/caption]

Response to Summer on Sampsonia has been terrific with over 700 people attending performances in June, plus many more to community dinners and other gatherings.  And the number of neighbors just walking up, without reservations, has swelled.

The Allstar Refugee band rehearsed in the Alphabet City Tent most days and pulled curious neighbors into it. The Archa Theatre created four 20-minute playlets, which they staged in backyards, a playground, and vacant lots. The playlets were based on the stories of Pittsburgh-area refugees, who also participated as actors and musicians.

The audience was divided into groups of 50 and rotated from site to site.

Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel[/caption]

Local musicians and actors also participated.

Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel[/caption]

Of course, it rained both nights but we were prepared—each attendee was given a poncho and we all paraded back to the tent, led by the band, for a culminating concert:

Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel[/caption]

The band also played a concert for 40 youngsters from the local YMCA and another in the main square in downtown Pittsburgh on International Refugee Day.

Our placemaking model involves integrating global artists into a gentrifying community with little forced displacement.  We have always used public spaces for our events.  But the “open tent” rehearsals and the ongoing stream of activity in the various lots and in the Alphabet City Tent has significantly expanded our ties in our immediate neighborhood.  We also walked a lot of visitors through our neighborhood, who were surprised to see it was not the run-down, crime-ridden Northside of local lore.

Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel[/caption]

Recent Wins
The conversion of the Garden Theater into the second location of a popular local restaurant has begun. The long-vacant theater is the symbol of our neighborhood’s decline to the rest of the city, and its revitalization is, thus, a symbol of our revitalization.  It is next door to the site of Alphabet City.

Pittsburgh Magazine’s annual city guide rated City of Asylum #2 on the Top 10 “Fun Things to Do in the New North” for “the most dynamic opportunities to take in global culture that you’ll find in the ‘Burgh—or anywhere else.”

The main streets and many of the side streets in our neighborhood are being repaved…and it’s not an election year locally.

Meeting peers informally, anywhere, in creative exchange is a great way to learn and expand the imagination.  The original recommendation that we make contact with the Allstar Refugee Band and Archa Theatre came from our peers at Pregones Theater in New York, who we met at a convening of emerging placemaking organizations.  Arnaldó Lopez and Rosalba Rolón told us that we had a lot in common with Czech companies, in “giving voice to the voiceless.”  Visiting organizations like AS220, Artists for Humanity, the Loft, Ashé, Intersection for the Arts, and others has been invaluable to us in charting our path.  Conversely, when peers visit us and speak about their experiences to our supporters it helps sustain the placemaking vision here.