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NATIONAL | spring 2006

Restoration Babe
By creating a new cultural center, Ani DiFranco helps rebuild Buffalo.

DiFranco and Fisher
Ani DiFranco (left) and manager Scot Fisher (center) talk to the Buffalo press about The Church. Photo: Suusan Alzner

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, long a feminist fave, has already made her mark on the popular music business with the success of her independent music label, Righteous Babe Records. It’s housed in Buffalo, N.Y., the faded Rust Belt city where she grew up, still lives and has recorded 21 albums. Now, the high priestess of indie folk has brought even more can do spirit to her hometown by reopening, as a cultural center, a 130 year old Gothic Revival church that she and her manager, Scot Fisher, saved from the wrecking ball.

Rechristened The Church, the $10 million restoration project promises to
give a shot in the arm to Buffalo’s rebounding downtown. The building’s centerpiece is a stunning, 1,200-seat, balconied performance hall painted in
pea green, orange and yellow and boasting glorious stained-glass windows.

“The space itself has a soul…it’s vibe-y, it’s cool and it’s beautiful,” says
the 35-year-old DiFranco. “Buildings that have a long history are so important to us as human beings [in order] to feel connected to our past, and our future, through our physical environment. Saving historical buildings in a community is like a gift to our children.”

Righteous Babe’s headquarters, currently a block away, are expected to relocate to the second floor of the church in late spring. Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, renowned for visual and media arts, performance and offbeat music, has already opened its first floor gallery
space and basement screening room.

“Ani’s been the role model for the possibility of independence within an industry that otherwise can really suck up culture into this huge mainstream, commercial machine," says Ed Cardoni, Hallwall's executive director. "Her company and her own practice has stood against that and Hallwalls has also been strongly associated with progressive points of view. Strong women artists have always been a part of our mix."

The glacial pace of the restoration project, dating back to 1999, tested the ever-restless DiFranco's patience and enthusiasm as she and Fisher struggled to negotiate with the city for the building and later to secure the complicated financing available for the redevelopment of historic buildings. DiFranco sank about $2.7 million of her own money into the project. "Ani has had a successful career," says Fisher, "and she had a choice to invest in the stock market or invest in her community. She chose to invest in her community.”

The project has found the tattooed, politically outspoken, formerly dread locked DiFranco embraced - amusingly, to some - by straitlaced civic leaders. “I commend Ani and Scot for their tenacity, vision and commitment to this project,” says Buffalo’s Democratic mayor, Byron Brown, obviously eager to illuminate the city’s economic renewal under DiFranco’s starry glow.

DiFranco says she will hold concerts occasionally in her born again venue, and when the inspiration strikes she’ll sit in with friends who are performing. “I want to book a poetry series, and bring all my favorite poets,” she fantasizes. “And my musician friends, there’s no end to the amount of live music I want on my doorstep.”

She’s looking forward to the opening performances, in late spring. “When the blossoms are blooming,” DiFranco says, “the place will be rocking.”

Photo: Suusan Alzner