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Sugar City looking for a new home

On Wednesday night around 7, a dozen or so people trickled into the small screening room and performance space at Sugar City, the Allentown art and community center launched in 2008 by a group of young artists and musicians.

They came to watch a screening of "The Yes Men Fix the World," a documentary by and about the provocative artistic duo infamous for impersonating corporate spokesmen and spreading messages of social justice and responsibility.

The atmosphere at Sugar City that night was, as usual, completely relaxed, informal and free of any hint of pretentiousness. Sarah Bishop, the screening's organizer and executive director of the economic justice organization Buffalo First, passed around big bowls of popcorn. It was like hanging out in your friend's living room.

After the screening, a panel of local activists took questions and mused on the film's lessons.

Sugar City's time at 19 Wadsworth is winding up. (Its last event is a concert Friday by Calvin Johnson's band, the Hive Dwellers.) The building will soon have a new owner, who intends to turn the building into a chamber music venue, according to Sugar City founder Aimee Buyea. But the organization, which has already received calls offering new spaces, plans to regroup in the coming weeks and formulate a new plan to continue its mission. ("In the spirit of DIY or die," writes Buyea, "Sugar City isn't resting quite yet but just looking for a new home.")

Though the grass-roots organization has only been in the Wadsworth building for less than four years, its impact on the artistic community of Allentown and Buffalo as a whole is immeasurable. The venue has hosted hundreds of events, from all-ages punk concerts and poetry readings to offbeat lectures and art exhibitions of all imaginable disciplines.

Its instant popularity indicated a deep desire by members of the city's underground art, literature, music and cross-cultural scenes to bring their work into the public sphere. In the same way the yearly Infringement Festival excavates the Buffalo underground for a single week every August, Sugar City has done that work all year long in its Allentown headquarters.

The posters for Sugar City's head-spinning variety of cultural events over the past four years are plastered across the north wall of the venue's performance space, each one a testament to the local creative community's need for low-cost spaces to show their work.

A few beautiful Sugar City moments stick out in my mind. One was touring Mark McLoughlin's enchanting installation in 2009, for which he turned the front room of the venue into a gigantic camera obscura. Another was listening to writer Jessica Max Stein give a presentation about the life and work of Richard Hunt, a Muppeteer whose sexuality played out in fascinating ways on "The Muppet Show" and "Sesame Street." I also fondly recall a brisk Saturday morning participating in the citywide interactive game "Play/Share Buffalo," after which everyone recouped at Sugar City to tally their scores and talk about the project.

The artists, activists and thinkers who pop up at Sugar City and Infringement are the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unknowably vast cultural underground in this town. They serve as vital points of contact between the public and the city's seething grass-roots culture.

"Sugar City is the epitome of bootstrap, grass-roots community involvement, of people building community, people taking charge of their own destiny, hosting their own events that matter to the community," said Bishop.

It's sad to see Sugar City's Wadsworth headquarters close up shop. But wherever it pops up next, that community is sure to follow.