Friday, December 18, 2009
George Packer glosses this photo in the New Yorker:
Ralph Henry Reese lives on a narrow street, not much wider than an alley, of two-story row houses in a neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side that dates back to the Mexican War. In 1980, when Reese bought his house, the North Side was a blighted district, in a city whose name stood for deindustrialization and urban decay. It was a strange place for the owner of a successful telemarketing firm to live—but Reese, who wears a bow tie and unkempt hair, is an unusual man. Three decades later, Pittsburgh has stabilized its decline (attention should be paid by Detroit, Cleveland, and other urban apocalypses), and the North Side is enjoying a modest renewal, thanks in part to Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, an artist, who bought four other row houses on their block of Sampsonia Way. The one where I’m staying the night, and writing this post, used to be a crack house. Its unpainted clapboard façade is now covered in bold Chinese characters.
This is because, a decade ago, Reese and Samuels decided to turn their properties into refuges for persecuted writers from around the world. They made Pittsburgh a member of an international project called Cities of Asylum, and they raised money—much of it their own—to bring writers to the row houses on Sampsonia Way for two-year stays, with expenses and medical care paid. The first writer was a Chinese poet named Huang Xiang, who had spent twelve years in jail and labor camps for taking part in the Democracy Wall movement. The abuse he endured had been so bad that, when he came to Pittsburgh in 2004, he locked himself in the former crack house and wouldn’t go out. Soon, though, he was up on a ladder, writing his poems in beautiful calligraphy across the exterior walls: an act of self-liberation that turned his banned writing into a startling sight on a street that still looks like the set for an August Wilson play.