Jazz Poetry 2009: City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Boosts Neighborhood Pride

by Desiree Cooper    /  September 14, 2010  / No comments

On a seasonable mid-September afternoon, Corneal Hopson kept the door to his row house open. The long-time resident of Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way wanted to keep an eye on his granddaughter Almond, 7, and two great nieces, Naya, 9, and Jonique, 4. The girls were playing on the stoop, working out a terrible case of the wiggles.

“We’re going to the concert tonight!” declared Jonique. “And it’s right outside our door!”

Jonique only had an inkling about the world that was about to come to her doorstep. Each year, Sampsonia Way is home to Jazz Poetry, a dynamic convergence of cultures and art sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P). COA/P is a residency program for international writers suffering from persecution. But, unlike most artist residencies, the Pittsburgh program is urban-based and integrated deeply into the community.

The annual, free concert features top-flight jazz artists and international poets who have experienced persecution.

Soon hundreds of people would be flocking to the narrow alley for the 5th Annual Jazz Poetry concert. Jonique had never heard of the jazz greats who would be performing—Geri Allen and Trio 3’s Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman.
And she had no idea that she would hear poetry from writers from places like Burma and Croatia. But she, Naya and Almond
had been infected by the buzz in their tiny alley.

“Jazz Poetry attracts people from all over to come to our neighborhood,” said Hopson, who has lived on Sampsonia Way
for 17 years. “I’m taking the girls there because they’ve never been exposed to anything like this.”

The world takes on an alley COA/P is nestled in Pittsburgh’s historic area called the Mexican War Streets. The district is diverse, with low-income housing interspersed with elegantly-rehabbed row houses and flourishing community gardens.

The area, which is has been plagued by crime and poverty, is home to a growing creative class. In addition to Jazz Poetry,
COA/P hosts regular events and readings, including some from the translators and international writers who come to stay at COA/P for shorter residencies. COA/P’s row houses are yards away from the Mattress Factory Art Museum, an avant-garde contemporary art museum in a redeveloped warehouse. Both organizations attract art lovers to the Mexican War Streets district and are helping to improve the image of the area. But the slow transition from troubled neighborhood to art enclave has not always been smooth.

“There can be a love–hate relationship in the neighborhood regarding all of the cultural activities,” said Heather Pinson, who, despite her Tennessee roots, sees herself living permanently in the Mexican War Streets district. “It’s not so much a black and white divide, as an economic one.”

Pinson noted that there has been tension between the neighborhood association, which supports beautification and clean-up projects, and some residents who are more concerned about attracting a youth center to the area and securing more
low-income housing.

Between the two interests, said Pinson, lies COA/P. “Jazz Poetry has become neutral ground where everyone can enjoy
themselves,” she said.

Redeveloping a state of mind

Beneath a dreary sky, volunteers hurried to set up hundreds of folding chairs for the concert. The event has grown over the years, attracting upwards of 700 fans.

In the nearby Widows Home housing project, three boys played basketball. When asked, they said that they knew about
the concert that night, but they had no idea that it was connected to City of Asylum/Pittsburgh—or what COA/P was, for
that matter. But its impact is still being felt.

“All I know about is that a Chinese man down the street covered his house with Chinese writing,” said 12-year-old Ray. He
was referring to one of the COA/P residences covered with Chinese calligraphy. The house is called “House Poem,” and the
calligraphy was painted by poet Huang Xiang. Tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese government because of his writing, Huang Xiang sought refuge at COA/P in 2004.

Despite the signs of Asia in their midst, the boys had a hard time connecting the “House Poem” to their own lives near Sampsonia Way. In fact, when asked what country he’d like to visit one day, Ray thought a long time and finally answered
“Canada.”

“It’s the only foreign country I can think of,” he laughed.

But Jazz Poetry has had a more direct affect on his life. “I like to sit at my window and listen to the music,” he said before going off to with his friends to play more basketball.

Barbara Talerico is an IT manager for The Bank of New York Mellon and a volunteer for COA/P. She moved to the Mexican
War Streets from the suburbs more than a decade ago. “I used to live out so far,” she said, “cows were over the next ridge.”

She loves her urban neighborhood for its diversity and keen sense of community. “Jazz Poetry has become a signature event,” she said as she took a break from setting up. “When my friends and family visit, they think this place is so cool. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and say, ‘Who are all these people streaming into the neighborhood?’”

By the time the musicians and poets took the stage, Hopson had herded Almond, Naya and Jonique into their seats. The girls were rapt, prone to improvisational movements as the music washed over the alley. Almond shook the beads in her braided hair to the rhythms. They listened with surprising attention to poetry from the reaches of the world: Croatia, India, Iraq, Georgia and Burma.

Kira Hoover, 24, (above) was also in the crowd. The newlywed moved into the neighborhood in April. “We see the North Side on the news everyday for drugs, prostitution and violence,” she said. “But I love it here. There’s a strong sense of community, and people here care about each other. Jazz Poetry makes me confident of my choice to live here. Together we are changing the perception about the area.”

Chris Cox snapped his fingers in the air as saxophonist Oliver Lake played a solo. “This is the coolest thing that happens in
Pittsburgh every year,” he said. “It’s religious.”

The future of Sampsonia Way

It is hard to measure the long-term effect that the event—and the presence of international writers—will ultimately
have on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Some changes are manifest, like the crowd coming to appreciate creative voices
from all over the world. Or like COA/P founder Henry Reese’s plans to build a neighborhood café and bookstore.
Some of the effects may be more subtle. Like the neighborhood pride that buoys each year during Jazz Poetry. Or the possibility that wafted over the Widows Home apartments just beyond the stage, where a little boy sat in an open window,
listening.

READ “INTENSE FEELINGS MARK JAZZ/POETRY EVENING,”
BY BOB HOOVER, PITTSBURGH POSTGAZETTE

READ “POP FILTER EVENT OF THE WEEK: CITY OF ASYLUM JAZZ POETRY,”
BY JENNIFER BARON

Read Desiree’s bio.

About the Author

Desiree Cooper is a regular contributor to Sampsonia Way. A former Pulitzer-prize nominated columnist with the Detroit Free Press, she has also been a National Public Radio host and contributor to the BBC. She has won awards for her short stories and poems, and will be included in the upcoming Best African American Fiction 2010, guest edited by Nikki Giovanni.

View all articles by Desiree Cooper

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