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City of Asylum works on new North Side headquarters

| Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
City of Asylum is taking over the Masonic Building on the North Side.
City of Asylum
City of Asylum is taking over the Masonic Building on the North Side.
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.

The Masonic Building in the Garden Theater block of the North Side has been vacant for so long that it's hard to imagine it housing anything but cobwebs and dust bunnies.

A May 10 hard-hat tour of the soon-to-open City of Asylum @ Alphabet City indicated only that work was very much in progress.

“It's hard to believe that the transformation of this building will be complete in September,” said Henry Reese, who co-founded City of Asylum with Diane Samuels.

The finished project will be the headquarters for City of Asylum, which has provided safe haven for persecuted writers from around the world since 2004.

“We've presented over 300 writers from more than 63 countries,” Reese said. “All continents but Antarctica, and we're working on a few penguins.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald placed City of Asylum in the long tradition of the city providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution.

“Pittsburgh was a refuge,” Fitzgerald said. “Many of our grandparents came here for (political) freedom, economic freedom.”

The building also will house the North American headquarters for ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, which does similar work worldwide. It will host City of Asylum's online magazine, Sampsonia Way, which is partially staffed by exiled writers.

A bookstore — City of Asylum Books — will be on the premises, featuring translated works and new and used fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The store is intended to become a hub for Pittsburgh's literary community and will prominently feature works by persecuted authors, such as Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, who will be the first guest speaker on Sept. 9 and 10.

The building will house a restaurant, Caselulla, specializing in wine and locally made cheese.

The upper floors will have eight apartments, six at market rate and two at “below-market affordable rentals.”

Plans are in place for City of Asylum @ Alphabet City to host more than 150 music and literary events in the first year alone. Avant-garde jazz will get particular emphasis, with the likes of Oliver Lake, Mary Halvorsen and Thumbscrew booked already. The ground-floor space is designed to be easily reshaped for performances of varying sizes.

The project was not an easy one to pull together.

“I've done over a thousand projects, and this is in the top half-dozen for uniqueness,” said Jeff Hoch, a consultant for PNC Bank, a partner in the project. “If people are driven enough to get it done, it gets done.”

The cost of the project is $12.5 million, with $10.7 million for construction. To date, City of Asylum has raised $10.5 million — with $2 million yet to be raised — to fund programming for the next three years.

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7901.

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