Aurora Returns to Slumber: Closing a Downtown Venue that Opened Itself to All

Sabrina Chaudhary and Jason “Where’s Nasty” Almeida are going to miss Aurora.

The duo form the experience agency stay silent PVD, which has planned and hosted dance parties for two years at 276 Westminster Street in the venue named after a sleeping princess. The events they’ve hosted there – Bounce House and Luv You Better – have been some of the venue’s strongest according to Aurora’s staff, embodying the community and diversity at the core of Aurora’s mission, filling the space wall-to-wall with smiling, dancing bodies, giving music seekers free reign to wear what they want and dance how they want, and giving DJs a place to spin hip-hop through a sharply honed sound system.

“Two-hundred fifty people came in and just packed the place,” recalls Jenny Young, Aurora’s booking manager, of stay silent PVD’s first night at Aurora. “They were just covering the dance floor.”

bouncehouse_byAF RGBAurora has occupied the first floor of the Whit Building at 276 Westminster Street for more than three years, under the ownership of Cornish Associates – Arnold “Buff” Chace’s real estate development company. Cornish purchased the building in 2014 and opened the self-described “mixed-use creative venue” on the first floor, in the space formerly occupied by The Providence Black Repertory Company and then The Roots Café and Cultural Center.

Almeida remembers honing his skills as an artist and event curator in that space long before Aurora appeared: “The first event I ever threw at 17 years old was at 276 Westminster – it was at the Black Rep at that time,” he says. stay silent PVD also curated performances there when the space was occupied by The Roots Café and Cultural Center, before bringing their art to Aurora.

Aurora has created a platform for a mind-opening menagerie of events, including Beyond Wrestling, Dyke Night, Salsa con Soul, multi-media acts like “If I should die tomorrow,” the resident Burbage Theatre Company and thrumming dance parties that featured local and beginning artists. Aurora staff explain that this variety in programming has been a central part of the venue’s mission to create a welcoming and inclusive space, in the tradition of the venues that came before it. They have taken a lot of chances on acts and have watched many successful performances incubated on their stage grow into something bigger. They curate something for everyone at Aurora, and no one should be afraid to walk in the door.

This dedication to inclusivity stood out to stay silent PVD from the beginning. Audiences of color “really don’t have a home in downtown Providence,” says Chaudhary, who also works as a part-time social media manager at Aurora. “And when we found Aurora and realized how open they were and willing to make space, that’s what’s made this such an interesting thing for us… That’s a central part of stay silent PVD’s mission: bringing our audience to spaces that respect and understand the needs and wants of a often-forgotten audience.

“We come up against very blatant racism continuously posting hip-hop programming in the city. Like, very blatant, in our face. Decisions are made strictly based on the color of skin of the people who come to our events,” she says. “Aurora was a safe place and most places aren’t.”

Other artists remember the warm welcome they received from Aurora. Rachel Lewallen was working as a floor manager at Aurora when she proposed hosting Dyke Night in the space – a way to bring more explicitly lesbian nightlife to Providence (a city without any lesbian bars). The first of Aurora’s Dyke Nights happened at the end of 2015 and took off into a regular party from there, with the occasional “Leather Special” twist.

“I hit a point while living in Providence where I felt like I was having a hard time connecting with a queer community that was actually for me,” she says. “It’s also about gay history – like, I didn’t invent dyke night! I just thought that Providence should have a dyke night.” Of Aurora, she says, “I couldn’t imagine a better place to have done it.”

Artist and actress Elizabeth Keiser recalls some of her favorite moments performing at Aurora – like creating and delivering her performance Horror (a show grappling with everyday life in 2017) regularly in the venue and directing a theater piece by Ntozake Shange called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Of the latter, she praises Aurora’s staff: “It was an intense production and the whole team at Aurora was stellar and respectful. They gave us courage.”

The staff also praise each other. Ann Boschini, bar manager at Aurora, describes the women-led team as inspiring and integral to the success of the venue – how the collaborative working relationships between the staff – including general manager Chrissy Wolpert, booking manager Jenny Young, cocktail program manager Audrey King and sound engineer Jared Mann – translated into bonds with local artists and audience members.

“The people who work in that building are a part of Rhode Island and a part of Providence,” Chaudhary of stay silent PVD says. “They go out to bars and restaurants and music shows and poetry readings and they’re active in the art and creative community in Rhode Island. That’s what made it special.”

The Closing

It came as a shock to many when the news broke that Aurora will close at the end of October.

According to Jef Nickerson, an associate program manager at Cornish Associates, the company had plans to develop the building when they purchased it from The Roots, but not right away. They decided to open a temporary venue on the first floor – that was Aurora. “We’re really amazed and proud of what it became,” he says. “We have a really great team here that we are sad to part with.”

Now that Cornish has secured $7 million in Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits from the RI Commerce Corporation, renovations are slated to begin transforming the building into apartments and office space. And Aurora’s programming can’t work around such aggressive construction, Nickerson says. “It would’ve cost a lot of money on our end and it would’ve been really disruptive to the business.”

This sentiment is echoed by Aurora’s staff. “Aurora is leaving due to a construction schedule,” Chrissy Wolpert says. “We could have tried to work around that schedule, but the idea that we’d have to work around things …became such a difficult thing to deal with. I don’t think that this decision was easy for anyone to make.”

Aurora’s managers remain “very emotional” over the closure, but they knew it was coming, as a venue that sat in the belly of a building slated for reconstruction. “I think that downtown is constantly changing,” says Audrey King. “New things are constantly opening and things are closing, I think that’s just the way it goes.”

Could the Aurora space become a music venue again after the renovations are done? Cornish has not made any decisions about the future of the space, and when renovations are complete, they will see who responds to the vacancy. Music venues and apartments do co-exist across downtown: the Salon, another bar in the center of downtown Providence, is a tenant of Cornish Associates and sits below residential apartments. Cornish and Salon work together to address noise issues, and the second floor apartments often go to bartenders or workers who have a late shift.

“We need to keep the tenants happy, but we need to create a neighborhood that they want to live in,” Nickerson says. “So if it was just quiet, and aseptic, the reason that people want to live down here would go away. So trying to find that balance is often difficult.”

The Future

With the future of 276 Westminster Street uncertain, many are devastated by Aurora’s closure. In the wake of their farewell announcement, the wall of Aurora’s Facebook page rings with memories and the final event listings for October – but also with sorrow and a question: “Why?”

“What’s happening at Aurora is someone with a lot of power and money wanted to look like they were community builders, so they opened this space for us to have and enjoy knowing that it would never last,” says Lewallen. “It’s not necessarily just about staying open during construction, it’s that I think that Cornish will make more money if people are living in condos downtown, like luxury lofts.

“We deserved that space, and we didn’t deserve to lose it,” she continued.

Buff Chace gave the venue its name – Aurora – after the sleeping princess who is finally awakened and allowed to rejoin the world. This Aurora’s revival was a short, but beautiful one, and, while the space is gone, Providence retains the creativity and community that gave it such vibrancy. Which venues will continue bringing Aurora’s acts to life? Aurora has been redirecting acts to local, community-focused venues like Machines with Magnets, the Columbus Theater, Alchemy and AS220.

“The biggest lesson from Aurora for everybody – and I hope that Cornish takes a lesson from it, I hope that all of the other nightlife venues do – is that making the ethics of your life, making the things that are important to you the center of your business are so important in 2017,” Chaudhary says. “This needs to be a lesson about how things can really grow. It’s community at the center, your ethics at the center, and you can make business decisions around that, but that’s what gives something life blood.”

You can still catch the last precious weeks of Aurora’s eclectic acts and events. Visit http://www.auroraprovidence.com/ for details.

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