Sunday, December 20, 2009

City of Asylum: Sampsonia Way on Christmas Day

Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas at our house is celebrated without all the craziness. We don’t get caught up in all the shopping frenzy (we stopped trying to buy each other the perfect gift years ago) and instead celebrate in quiet ways. We put up a real tree and decorate the house (usually just the inside, although some years we put up outdoor lights). On Christmas Day, we build a fire in the fireplace and make a few phone calls to family members scattered across the country.

The past few years we’ve gone on a Christmas walk, usually along one of Pittsburgh’s urban river trails. Last year we walked along the Allegheny River near Western Penitentiary, where holiday visitors were coming and going from the parking lot behind the razor wire fences. It was a cold afternoon, and the bitter breeze along the riverfront made my eyes water as we stopped to feed bread to the ducks and geese that followed us along the trail.

On our way home, we drove through the Mexican War Streets District on the North Side to take a look at Sampsonia Way. The afternoon sunlight was gorgeous and beckoned us to photograph as we walked its short length. The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum, is located on Sampsonia, and the local creative forces were well organized when the Google Maps Car came to town to film Pittsburgh for their Street View maps. To see the unusual happenings, take a look at the street on Google maps or visit YouTube to see the making of “Street with a View.”

Poet's House

Sampsonia Way is home to the Poet’s House, which was the residence of exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang after City of Asylum/Pittsburgh offered him housing there in 2004. Huang Xiang, who has been living in the United States since 1997, had been imprisoned in China for 12 years for writing about human rights. He painted his “House Poem” in Chinese calligraphy on the brown clapboard exterior of the building.

Susan Hutton (in her 2006 article “Writing on the Wall” on the Poetry Foundation’s website) describes Huang Xiang’s situation:

"He was first arrested in 1959 for leaving one province without official permission and seeking employment in another. For this he was sentenced to four years in laogai, a reform camp similar to the Russian gulag. In 1965 he was arrested for engaging in counterrevolutionary activities—primarily writing, reading, and discussing issues related to human rights—and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in laogai and forbidden to read or write. By the time he was 25, he’d served more than seven years in laogai. His writings were banned in China for 40 years.

Though he avoided prison for the next decade, he was officially forbidden to write. He continued to do so anyway, secretly; his rooms were regularly searched, and any discovered writing was confiscated. Out of necessity, he made it a habit to commit his poems to memory, sometimes reciting them privately for a small circle of friends."

Sampsonia Way has been in the press recently: first George Packer’s blog post at The New Yorker earlier this month and then last week a piece by Diana Nelson Jones in her City Walkabout blog at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Online.

Having time to write is the best gift I receive at Christmas when I’m on “winter recess” from my university job from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. One of my favorite parts of the holidays is taking my laptop computer into the living room where I can write by the fire and enjoy the Christmas tree lights and decorations. This is a gift I’m always grateful for – time to slow down and quiet my mind, to shake off the day-to-day noise and rush of the working world, to tap into the creative zone. That and the freedom to write whatever I choose, which is something I don’t ever take for granted.

Happy Holidays!

Photo Credits:
"Sampsonia Way" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Poet's House" photogarph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Amaryllis" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.

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Patry Francis said...

Thanks for the link and for sharing your memories. Your recollections of 1978 are similar to mine though I was on the East coast. I remember living on brown rice and chard frozen from our gardens, and living in a very overcrowded but happy house. A blissful New Year to you. Nothing else will do!

Dory Adams said...

Hi Patry! So glad to see you here (I think you probably intended your comment for the New Year's Eve post further up). Wishing you a blissful year in return.