Pittsburgh means different things to different people. Maybe that's one small lesson of all the G-20 noise.
But an annual free event that symbolizes how a place can transform itself is this outdoor concert, organized by the local incarnation of the international network of refuges for writers persecuted in their own countries.
It takes place on the North Side's Sampsonia Way, just behind program co-sponsor The Mattress Factory, and partly lined by "art houses" that have sheltered writers. The best-known is House Poem, beautifully covered in verses rendered in calligraphy by the first resident writer, dissident Chinese poet Huang Xiang (who has since moved on).
Every September, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh director Henry Reese, staff and volunteers set up a stage and a few hundred chairs to host performances by an international group of writers, partly in collaboration with a line-up of top jazz artists. The musicians have always included reed-man Oliver Lake, who this year was joined by the other members of his Trio 3 and pianist Geri Allen. The collabos are created in improvisatory workshops the night before.
The first reader on this year's event, this past Saturday, was Khet Mar, the current Sampsonia resident. She's a Burmese national, a journalist, writer and political activist living in exhile. One of her poems, "Pittsburgh Spring," ends with the line "life takes place amidst blooming flowers." It's an observation seldom adduced about Pittsburgh. (Nationally, Super Bowls and Stanley Cups notwithstanding, we're still more of a punchline to jokes about dreariness; witness G-20 "Pittsburgh?!?!" cracks.)
Emcee Barbara Russell also reiterated the project's plans to create a new literary center (including café and bookstore) on the nearby site of a former bar, and announced the receipt of an NEA grant.
But aside from the great music, and the thrill of seeing 500 people pack a narrow street to hear jazz and poetry, the concert always provides some global perspective. This year, that came not only from the writers who joined Khet Mar onstage, but also those represented on video.
Most haunting was the short video from Iran. It consisted of a single, static shot of a darkened cityscape, shot from a high window, with street noise in the background, and the voice of a young woman. Choking up, she recited a series of questions reflecting the political turmoil there, along the lines of: "Where is here, where the blood of our young people [is] being shed on the streets?" The video was attributed to "Anonymous."
Not all the news was grim. We also learned -- and saw video -- of a 6-year-old Chinese girl named "Little Pittsburgh." She was named, Russell told us, by her father, a Chinese poet who wanted to honor a town that had sheltered his colleague, Huang Xiang, the first resident of City of Asylum here.