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Alphabet City unites City of Asylum programs

| Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, 2:57 p.m.
Alphabet City at City of Asylum sits behind Henry Reese (front), the co-founder and president, and his staff along West North Avenue on the North side on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Alphabet City at City of Asylum sits behind Henry Reese (front), the co-founder and president, and his staff along West North Avenue on the North side on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Alphabet City at City of Asylum along West North Avenue on the North side on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Alphabet City at City of Asylum along West North Avenue on the North side on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature winner, will be the guest speaker at the grand opening of City of Asylum @ Alphabet City.
Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature winner, will be the guest speaker at the grand opening of City of Asylum @ Alphabet City.

Since its inception in 2003, City of Asylum has provided sanctuary for exiled and politically oppressed writers. Located on the North Side, the nonprofit organization has hosted writers including Horacio Castellanos Moya from El Salvador, Khet Mar of Burma and the current exiled writers-in-residence, Israel Centeno from Venezuela and Yaghoub Yadali from Iran.

But the prestige of City of Asylum's programs and good works didn't match its humble North Side location on Sampsonia Way, an alley in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood. On Sept. 10, the organization will finally have a venue that matches its status. The grand opening ceremonies for the multipurpose City of Asylum @ Alphabet City will feature an appearance by Nobel Prize-winning writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich.

“I don't know if we've been overlooked,” says Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum. “We may have been more difficult to connect to because we present programs in various places … (Alphabet City) is going to be an easier way to access us.”

Alphabet City, located on West North Avenue at the site of a former Masonic temple, will include a bookstore featuring the translated works of global writers; a multipurpose performance center that can host between 10 and 200 guests; Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe of New York, which will offer food, wine and “artfully curated cheese plates”; and office space.

The bookstore will be managed by Lesley Rains, former owner of the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield, and will be the hub of the new location. At roughly 1,500 square feet, Rains expects to have approximately 10,000 books on hand, most of them translated works (and some out-of-print volumes) that are not readily found in the Western Pennsylvania.

“It's been a challenge for sure,” Rains says. “But that to me is part of the fun. … It's not a general stock store, and I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the translation world and its publishers.”

The performance center will enable City of Asylum to schedule events without having to worry about finding suitable venues. Because shelving in the bookstore is on rollers, the performance center can be expanded to include extra space in the bookstore depending on the anticipated audience for events.

While City of Asylum is literary-based, the pairing of literature with music and other art forms allows the organization a broader platform.

“It gives a forum to forms of art that are not often given a forum,” Reese says. “It also allows us to feature a diversity of voices and styles and share that with the audience to engage in a dialogue.”

Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe of New York is a highly regarded restaurant in Manhattan owned by Brian Keyser. The small plates fare will be offered at affordable prices to encourage patronage by North Side residents.

The launch will have an international aspect by way of the appearance of Alexievich, who will be featured in conversation with Philip Gourevitch, the author of “The Ballad of Abu Ghraib” and a staff writer with The New Yorker. Reese says City of Asylum was able to secure Alexievich's appearance by way of its connection with the International Cities of Refuge Network.

Alexievich's appearance at Alphabet City is akin to Mick Jagger appearing at the opening of a record store.

“Off the top of my head, I don't know too many booksellers that have opened with such a splash,” Rains says.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

High-profile speaker

Svetlana Alexievich's mission is direct and single-minded. On her website alexievich.info, Alexievich states, “I always aim to understand how much humanity is contained in each human being, and how I can protect this humanity in a person.”

The execution of that charge earned Alexievich the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her novels are indelible and exacting examinations of life in the former Soviet Union. Born in 1948 in the Ukraine — her father was a native of Belarus, her mother Ukrainian — Alexievich grew up in Belarus. She first worked as an investigative journalist, relying on the testimony of witnesses to craft her stories and books.

In “Voices of Chernobyl,” she shocked readers with accounts from that infamous nuclear meltdown. “Zinky Boys” looked at the aftershocks felt in the USSR after its war in Afghanistan. The collapse of communism is examined in “Secondhand Time.”

Her style attempts to mimic the rhythms of reality.

“I've been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life,” Alexievich says on her website. “Reality has always attracted me like a magnet; it tortured and hypnotized me. I wanted to capture it on paper.”

After being harassed by the administration of Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, Alexievich left Belarus in 2000. International Cities of Refuge Network provided sanctuary, and for the next decade she lived in Paris, Berlin and Gothenburg, Sweden. She returned to Belarus in 2011 and now lives in Minsk.

The selectors for the Nobel Prize called Alexievich's work “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

— Rege Behe

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