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As Buffalo’s pessimism thaws, big dreams reemerge

In her ruminative poem “Dreams Before Waking,” the late Adrienne Rich asked what it would mean “to live in a city whose people were changing each other’s despair into hope.” She wondered aloud how it would feel “to stand on the first page of the end of despair.”

Rich, one of the great American dreamers, could have been writing about Buffalo in 2014. She could have been describing the extraordinary moment now unfolding before our eyes, as the pessimistic deep-freeze that seemed to paralyze the region for half a century begins to thaw and big dreams once again sprout up from the permafrost.

Nowhere are the region’s dreamers more active or inspired than on its cultural scene, which in recent months has seen the announcement of two projects with the potential to radically transform the region’s artistic identity.

The first, Buffalo playwright Neil Wechsler’s “Against the Grain” theater festival, is designed to turn the riverside industrial complex known as Silo City into an international destination for outdoor theater. Its first production, a roving version of Wechsler’s own adaptation of Goethe’s “Faust” for which he is recruiting actors and audiences from cities across the Northeast and Midwest, is slated to open July 22. The experience, he said, will liken “Buffalo Niagara’s industrial past to Goethe’s fable of the rise and fall of western civilization.”

The second, an insanely ambitious plan to load a barge full of art and music and float it down the Erie Canal to Brooklyn and back, will begin its first phase on July 11 in the main gallery of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. There, a dedicated group of Buffalo artists and curators will construct a mock version of the vessel that may help to transform Buffalo into a nexus for culture the way it once was for industry.

Of course, both of these plans have a huge potential for failure, which is central to their importance and their appeal. Cynics and naysayers will complain. Fundraising will undoubtedly be a challenge. Cold reality, the enemy of idealists everywhere, is bound to force project organizers to adjust their ambitions and expectations.

But the history of Buffalo, and of any great city that has fallen upon hard times, is a history of big ideas and big gambles. And though the economic engines of the region may have slowed down, the idealism and adventurous spirit that made Buffalo prosperous to begin with have been simmering the whole time.

One of the many things that makes ambitious projects like the art barge or Against the Grain festival possible here is our full-on embrace of risk. For artists with huge imaginations, Buffalo’s cultural community has long acted as one big trust-fall, ready to catch you if you fail and instantly set you back on your feet to try again. It’s understood here that you will gain force from your failures and momentum from your missteps. And unlike in New York City, once you dust off the disappointment, you’ll probably still be able to make rent.

Until this place got waylaid by the forces of economics and history, absurdly huge ambitions were part of the vernacular. The Buffalo we live in, after all, was the result of one of the biggest and most idealistic dreams in American history: the construction of the 363-mile Erie Canal. Thomas Jefferson called the plan “little short of madness,” but its visionary authors forged ahead, undaunted by the torrential skepticism coming at them from all sides.

“Shall I lead your astonishment to the verge of incredulity? I will,” said Gouverneur Morris, a chief proponent of the canal 17 years before construction began.

And so he did, proceeding to accurately predict the remarkable effect the canal would have on the course of American history.

There is certainly some of Morris’ visionary spirit in the current gamble to turn Buffalo into a biomedical and clean energy mecca, but I think that spirit makes itself most viscerally evident in the cultural sphere. These people are leading our astonishment to the verge of incredulity on what seems like a monthly basis, daring us to stand with them on the first page of the end of despair.

Of course there is no direct comparison to be made between these relatively minor artistic projects and a scheme as grand as the construction of the Erie Canal, but the mix of idealism and ambition is the same.

And unlike misguided silver-bullet solutions of the past (Bass Pro being chief among them), the grandiosity of these creative dreams is laudable because they are essentially failure-proof. Even if theatergoers do not flock to Silo City from across the continent this summer for the Against the Grain Festival, and even if the mammoth art barge idea never floats down the Erie Canal, the mere ideas will have succeeded in fueling the region’s creative revival.

No matter the outcome, they will have encouraged others to think big thoughts, to take huge risks and to know that, whether or not they succeed, they’ll have accomplished something remarkable.