The Lights Coming Down

An oral history of Aurora

by Will Weatherly, Sophie Kasakove, Maya Björnson & Nora Gosselin

published October 27, 2017

If you live in Providence, it is likely that you have attended an event at Aurora at some point during its three-year run. The space, located in the Whit Building at 276 Westminster Street, has hosted an immense constellation of events and projects, catering to countless communities and interests. Queer dance parties, all-ages rap battles, noise performances, design conferences, nonprofit fundraisers, and punk shows all found a home there, and its managers always strove to provide surprising intersections between every niche of its broad fanbase. 

On August 4, Aurora announced that it would be closing after the building’s owner and manager, Arnold ‘Buff’ Chace of Cornish Associates, slated the property for redevelopment. Aurora will be holding its last party on November 3. The Independent asked community members who have managed, staffed, and performed at Aurora what they wanted to honor about the space. 

Jenny Young, booking manager at Aurora:
We are very much an open canvas for artists to work with. I think that people have really been able to make their own [kind of space] because there aren’t a lot of spatial restrictions and we like to encourage that. So to be able to come here and have that sense of ownership over the space allows for a lot of creativity. There have been a lot of artists who have worked with us for the entirety [of our time running Aurora], and they have definitely grown in terms of how they build upon an initial idea and have the space and time to grow. 

People are really, really bummed out that we’re closing, and I’m really bummed that we’re closing, but I’m definitely really hopeful and optimistic that there’s so many creative people here that something else will open up. Maybe it’ll be a while, and people will be trying new things, but definitely something else will happen. Now [organizers] have a resume under their belt and they know more about selling an event, so they can go to another venue with a lot of experience. 

There are definitely a lot of stories, and one doesn’t stick out more than any others, but for me personally Tuesdays have always been a difficult day to program. Finally, this summer we were able to produce some really great Tuesday night programming, which were game shows that we conceived of having here and asking people who we know to host it. This bingo game that’s happening tonight started because one of our bartenders has issues with insomnia. Sometimes we get out of here at four or five in the morning, and instead of going home, she would go to Foxwoods to play bingo, because the games start at 8AM on Sundays. It was her idea that we should have bingo! It was such a successful night, we decided that we’d also have Family Feud. Finally, just as  we’re closing, we’ve finally figured out Tuesdays. 

We also recently had a drag contest here. It’s something that happens all the time at the Dark Lady, but it was able to be a really special event here, with a cash prize, and so many people had talked to me that night saying, “We couldn’t have had this at our normal bar, because it’s our normal bar, and it wouldn’t have been special.” Being able to have this stage really made it come alive.

Buff Chace, developer and owner of the Whit Building at 276 Westminster Street:
We purchased the building Aurora was in three-and-a-half years ago from the owners of the Roots Café. They wanted to close their business and needed to sell the building. We are part of Cornish Associates, which is a downtown property developer—we’ve taken 12 buildings and revitalized them over the past 15 or 20 years—so we took on the Whit Building and we put together a wonderful team of individuals to open Aurora and run it with the idea that at some point we would work with the city and the state to try to revitalize and upgrade not only that building but also three buildings adjacent to it. The Whit was built in the early 1900s, and it just needs to be revitalized so we can get another century out of its use. So we have gone through a process with the Commerce Department, competing for Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits as well as working with the city to get support from them for the Federal Historic tax cut. We anticipated completing that process around the first part of November. We were working with Chrissy and the people who ran the property and decided that somewhere around the end of October was the date that made sense to close the business in an orderly fashion and to celebrate their successes and to give the people who were regular users of the state plenty of time to find other venues. 

The Indy asked Chace to explain his comment published in the Providence Journal in August that a music venue does not fit into his plans for Westminster Street:  I don’t recall if that was an accurate quote. I said that I think that if there was music in that space that it probably wouldn’t be something that was closing at two o’clock in the morning given that there’s a housing component to the new development. So it’s the fine point of what the hours would be rather than a question of music or no music. 

I’ve also been working with AS220 on possibly opening a different music venue. Right across from where Trinity Rep is, there’s a smaller venue that’s currently closed. AS220 bought it from the strip club that was there. The reason that would work as a music venue and Aurora wouldn’t is that the location means that they can exist and do their things without disrupting other activities. If I’m going to be responsible for people living above there I need to take that into consideration. 

I intend to have a use of the Aurora space that contributes to the mixture of uses on Westminster street. The strongest demands right now are for food and beverage on that street, which can have a music component, too. So when we get to 12–18 months down the road we’ll see what ideas people bring. We will be interviewing lots of people to see what ideas they have for the space and we’ll go with the best one. 

Chrissy Wolpert, general manager at Aurora: 
On the possibility of a new music venue in the building: I’m not really sure what’s going on with that, I’m not involved with that. I think that what has happened here has been a really magical thing. I definitely feel like we were just starting, over the last six months, to hit the potential and feel like the web was coming together in terms of where we were moving towards. Different communities need something like this. If that does reincarnate two years from now somewhere else, then let’s do that and support that… As far as something new coming along, if that happens, then I think that, y’know, do I think that it’s going to be this? No. Because this is what this is, just like the legacy before us. We were never going to be the Black Rep, and we were never going to be the Roots Café, and we didn’t want to be, but we wanted to honor what existed in this building. Things are what they are just like moments are what they are—it’s a moment. 

I got to Aurora roughly around a year after it opened; I was not part of the original crew that evolved the space. I think that both of the spaces that existed here before us were wonderful because of what they offered to different communities downtown. That’s what we tried to do—to create an environment where people could come in, whatever you looked like or dressed like, and feel like they could be in the sense of who they [already] were without any bologne. It’s not always easy! But it had so much to do with the staff, who are all people who have either performed here, made the wallpaper, painted the back bathroom, made all the drinks—the people who work here cared about what was here. 

A lot of performers cared about making sure people felt taken care of and respected, and hopefully we earned a little bit of change to put in their pocket when they go home, and gave them an environment that was taken care of. The Black Rep and the Roots Café definitely did those things—the beauty was that everyone did it in their own way, and it was made by the communities who came through the doors. It’s been so nice, especially over the last year, when we’ve had more people who have come and told us, “I was here when it was the Black Rep!” You can see it on their face: this fond memory of being in the building when it was that space. 

We are a multi-use space that does programming seven days a week—it’s our greatest benefit and our greatest challenge, because it’s not like, “Every Tuesday we have this, and every Friday we have this.” Just like anything, it grew organically. [Strict scheduling] rebelled against us—it didn’t work! 

It wasn’t always about curating. We didn’t curate for genre—we curated based on whether events were good for the community and whether they aligned with our mission, and from there, if there was respect and love coming into the space from these people. 

One thing that’s been really cool here has been to see so many groups of people interacting all the time. The hope is that sometimes we can cross some of those lines, so that people can continue to interact and see new things. This place has taught me a lot about care, and what it means to care and nurture for something. [Providence organizers] should continue to give people an opportunity—give people a chance. Because it changes you too. 

I’ve definitely been somebody who comes to work and says, “Oh god, what do we have to do today? Somebody broke off the stall door in the men’s room again?” (because it has happened—twice), but these last few weeks have brought wonderful moments of reflection. I’ve been looking at my staff and thinking that these people are so awesome, and seeing the greater good that has come from this place—and it’s also coming from a state of total denial that I have to say goodbye to everything and everyone. But that’s fine. I’ll deal with it when I have to. 

It’s changed me too. I’ve been somebody who’s played music in Providence for a long time. But to be connected to something from this place… I feel incredibly lucky that I got to do that. 

Norlan Olivo, organizer of ‘Running through the 401’ dance parties at Aurora:
As a lot of the mill [DIY spaces] began to close down, first Building 16, then Capitol Records and Spark City, which was a space Joey [DeFrancesco] and Victoria [Ruiz] and I did events in Olneyville. Spark City was one of the most inclusive spaces in Providence in terms of programming that had bands with people of color playing there. But as those spaces fell, Aurora took a big lead to host the people who didn’t have a space anymore—especially local youth of color who came from New Urban Arts and AS220. A lot of those people came to Aurora, as well as the noise community. 

Last year, we started doing dance parties here once every two or three nights. Last Halloween we had a dance party, and it was super packed—there’s definitely an audience for these dance nights. Ever since then, we’ve been doing our parties once a month, called “Running through the 401.” 

At this point, when you talk about different audiences who use Aurora, I feel like a lot of people of color were doing great things out of this space and culminate their own projects just from having monthlies at Aurora. Things like that won’t exist in the city until we find a space that is just as flexible. When you can have Luv You Better and Running Through the 401, and then a Salsa Night and a Gay Goth Night—no other venue catered to making each community in Providence heard, at least once a month, in their space. 

I think a lot of downtown is being developed into things like condos, hotels, and parking lots, but in eliminating spaces like Aurora, people forget that you need something to do. You’ll have people living downtown with no entertainment at all. It boggles my mind to have all of these developments happening without keeping the local community, local artists, and entertainment in mind. No other city that I know functions that way. I still don’t know what the vision for this city is.

[Pointing out the window] I mean, that Superman building is empty! The building across the street is empty! [How development works] is just a game—you get people really excited and invested in a space, and when it’s about to reach its peak, you take it away and take that momentum and build something else. I don’t think it’ll work—we’re not New York, there’s not the same type of industry here, and the community’s too strong. Nothing will ever work without the community. 

Lady J, MC at Aurora’s Bingo Night: 
I’ve got a long history here. Ten years ago, [my friends and I] were walking down Washington Street and we saw a line of people outside. It was the Black Rep, and we saw people drumming, there was a giant piano in the window, and everybody was dancing. This was the spot we knew you could come to on Friday and Saturday nights. When that closed down, I was happy because it got taken over by the Cabral brothers [the original owners of the Roots Café], and they brought me in after grad school and I was a bartender here. I got to work on a lot of the decor that was here, so I was very involved with that. It was good to see their community come back up, because they’ve had the same group since the ’60s—that was the kind of theater group that was hanging out at the Roots Café. And then having Aurora—it’s been such a great home for artists of any type, no matter your skill level. If you want to book a night, you book a night here. It’s so experimental and welcoming. For me, this has been [important] to my growth as an artist—coming out and hosting the game night, and being able to play a character and get a following—so this is just the beginning of what [my work] is going to be. 

The diversity of the people here is great. I’ve had two 15-year-old boys who have asked their dad to bring them, so they kept coming back. I’ve had first dates, all-girls dates, bachelorette parties, older people who love bingo and don’t want to talk to anybody, and my friends who come out to support me. It’s family style, so people are meeting each other, talking, and working so hard to win a box of Kleenex! 

I’m going to miss having a go-to creative space. I’m in a band and work for a company, and any time I need a place to go to, this is the first place I go. I’m going to miss having that home base. This is like our community center, this is like our club house. I feel like we’re going to lose that—a little bit of the heart of the city. We just have to figure out where to find that next. 

From the Aurora Family Feud survey question “What will you miss most about Aurora?”: 

Mori Granot-Sanchez, Owner/Founder of RI Latin Dance and organizer of Aurora’s Salsa Con Soul event series:
We’ve been involved with Aurora for a little over three years and it’s unfortunate it’s closing because it was such a beautiful thing we created in the community—just collaborating and bringing the community together. All of our network basically had a place to go and interact with one another right downtown,  it was very convenient for students to come out from all the different schools. It was an awesome place to interact and see and feel the different instructors, you know, because we were a team.Everybody got the opportunity to teach and we had a chance to have different DJs, different instructors from different places, different performers, to kind of expose the community to that aspect as well. 

And the birthdays! The birthday celebrations were awesome, [they were for] people in the community or if it was one of us, we always made a big deal out of it and would recognize the people at a beautiful birthday circle, we had a table with some balloons and snacks. We’d have them come to the middle of the circle so everybody gets the chance to dance with them, to have a little moment for them. That’s memorable.  

I really feel that this was a hub. People knew that every first of the month, and some Saturdays, they had a place to go and interact and dance, and had a place to put in action what they learned in classes. There are other events, but they’re hosted by one company or one school, it’s not collaborative.  It’s not one person or company that goes [to Aurora], it belonged to everybody. And it feels like they belong there. 

I think also for the gay community, that they felt they had a place they could actually go where it was just okay—it was never a question—of two females to lead and follow in the dance or two males to lead and follow, like it was just a gender neutral environment and everyone was just accepted. 

I wish there would be something to replace it like that—that would be so convenient for people and that everybody could just go to. I hope something will come up. 

Next week (we haven’t announced it yet) but we’re doing a master class and we’re bringing in a Cuban instructor from Montreal to do a lecture and workshop at the club right before we go to Aurora for the last night; on Wednesday it’s going to be the last Salsa Con Soul at Aurora. Next Wednesday, from 6-8 at Alumnae Hall (194 Meeting St.), there will be a lecture on salsa history and Cuban history, and the workshop, and then we’ll move over to Aurora where the social starts at 10. 

Chris Cordon, a member of The Broken Few who held his wedding at Aurora: 
I wanted to have my wedding [at Aurora] because not only was it cheap—like they were going to give us the whole venue for $300, maybe $400—but also because I wanted to show [Aurora] to a lot of my friends who are not in the Providence music scene, or are outside of the city, and to all my friends and family—this is where I spent the last four years of my life... It’s like me presenting this treasure that I’ve kind of like… not kept to myself, but I feel like it’s been so important in my development as someone in the city, as a local, and it’s helped me grow as a musician, just watching all these cool people come and play at Aurora, and they fucking kill it. I’m constantly inspired to kill it like they are. 

Once we got past all the ceremonial stuff, my pastor Andrew jumped into the sound booth and DJed the whole night. I have photos of him just chugging vodka, as he’s playing the playlist we gave him. Even [the puppet performance group] Big Nazo showed up. We emailed them like two weeks before the wedding, and they got back to us the night before. 

Joey DeFrancesco,  guitarist in Downtown Boys and frequent performer at Aurora: 

Aurora was a key place for Downtown Boys and for so much Providence music. Especially following the evictions of most Providence DIY spaces, Aurora provided an all-ages spot for culture to happen in the city. And it had a really low overhead for artists. The door deal was one of the best around, and it effectively operated like an underground space [in terms of its pricing] for artists. That was amazing and is exceptionally rare anywhere in the country. It's another big loss for artists in Providence—we should be able to make our spaces more sustainable than this. Still, I'm confident people will continue to build new places for culture to happen.

Burbage Theater Company, from the playbill for their last performance in the space: 
“It was like a dream. The live performances were unlike anything we’d encountered. An exacting mix of in-the-know, ultracool live music and genuinely strange, rough-around-the-edges obscura. People came from every concievable walk of life and they had a great time. Aurora also had one of the most competitive cocktail programs in the state as far as we’re concerned. They squeezed fresh juice daily. People don’t do that. But they did because they cared about their drinks. Whether behind the bar or on the floor, Aurora’s staff kicked ass every single night. We are eternally indebted to them…

Aurora allowed us to pursue more daring, provocative, and compelling work that beat to the tune of downtown Providence’s infinitely varied and incredibly welcoming arts community. Aurora gave us our first taste of being a truly autonomous, year-round theater. They gave us the freedom to be ourselves, they gave us their stinky basement. Aurora gave us our first glimpse at what we can do and who we could be as an organization. And while the Burbage story is pretty specific, we’re willing to bet that other creative people had defining, formative moments on that stage because of them. 

We are eternally grateful to Aurora’s staff and management for providing us with such an incomparable workshop. They are permanently in our bones.”

THE INDY recommends that you dance under the Aurora lights one last time at its Puerto Rico benefit show and dance party on November 3 at 7 PM. A donation of $10 is encouraged, but not required.