Peter Gabel’s street corner revolution
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
A street corner revolution.
This is how Peter Gabel describes the Arlene Francis Center for Spirit, Art & Politics, housed in a vintage brick building on the northwestern edge of Railroad Square.
Once a 19th and 20th century flour mill, the location has, over the past 16 years, become a virtual grist mill for cultural ideals. Gabel, a San Francisco-area law professor and self-described spiritual activist, opened the center in 1996. The building came as a gift from his mother, Arlene Francis, a 1950s television star and host of “What’s My Line?” who died in 2001.
“Our vision is to create a society based on authentic human connection and on linking the spiritual goodness of people with creativity, art, politics and social activism,” said Gabel, 65. “It’s a community that comes out when people are able to recognize each other’s humanity fully -that isn’t just looking for private solutions to life, but is trying to transform a whole culture.”
Gabel discovered the building during a drive through Santa Rosa with friend and fellow New College of California faculty member Martin Hamilton. Seeing the “for sale” sign, they asked for a tour of the place and quickly fell in love with it.
“The building was quite unique and sort of accidentally wonderful, an old building that is in a beautiful and very central location,” said Hamilton.
Gabel’s mother agreed to purchase the building, and after kicking around some names, both Gabel and Hamilton agreed the center should be named after her.
Gabel remembers Francis as both a pioneer in the arts and a loving person.
“People who remember my mother remember that she was a very capable and intelligent woman during a time period when women were overshadowed by men,” he said. “But they also remember that she was an extremely open-hearted and warm human being who was able to convey that through the television screen.”
The center originally housed several satellite programs for the San Francisco-based New College of California, where Gabel taught as a law professor and served as president for more than 30 years. The college closed in 2008 due to lack of funds, leaving the building empty.
“What do a couple of old guys who have given their life to New College do for the second act, so to speak?” said Hamilton, who also served as president of New College for a time.
Bit by bit, a vision for the center came together. Local musicians through the North Bay Hootenanny booked it as a venue for concerts. An arts collective that Hamilton was a part of began to use the space. Word trickled out, donations came in and a post-New College center was born.
“There was a lot of early generosity among some local folks, and so we began moving in the direction to pull together this program that combines three of the activities (spirit, art and politics) Peter, myself and others in our circle had long been involved in,” said Hamilton, who is responsible for the center’s day-to-day operations.
The current layout of the roughly 9,000 square-foot space includes a 200-person theater and concert venue, a large classroom and newly-opened cafe. The cafe allows the center to expand its hours beyond event times.
The center has become an underground heartbeat of sorts, brimming with a wide variety of people who resonate with Gabel and Hamilton’s vision.
“We’re not just a space, we’re a space with a particular vision that we want to help to realize,” said Gabel.
Hamilton agrees, saying, “We want to be a place that’s open to different ideas, but also has a point of view — changing the world, trying to make these connections between art, music and social change.”
Local group 100,000 Poets for Change recently hosted a gathering at the center, Skyping in participants from around the world. The building also serves as a base for the nonprofit group Drums for Solar, an organization seeking to bring solar power to rural villages in West Africa.
Dozens of other individuals and events have embraced the center, including the Santa Rosa Tool Library, the Greencounter Co-op, the North Bay Film & Art Collective and the Square Belly Food Theater.
“This place is providing a new model on how to have a space for art, education and social gatherings in the current climate,” said Josh Windmiller of North Bay Hootenanny. “It’s tough to have a venue, but AFC is growing as one, while at the same time keeping that bottom line of the social goal right there in the center, which is really cool.”
Currently, only about half the space is being used, leaving more than 4,000 square feet of warehouse space waiting for renovation. Gabel and Hamilton hope to house the archives of New College there, as well as create a space for some Arlene Francis memorabilia. Renovations also are in the works to make the entire building green.
“The point is that we see this as one kind of life’s work,” said Gabel. “Since we became adults, we’ve been trying to create educational and cultural, artistic forms that bring these different elements of a progressive counterculture together. Now, we’re trying to do that in one space.”
What would Francis think of the center?
“I think of what a smile it would bring to her face to imagine that I was carrying forward the spirit of love and generosity that she embodied and that so many people associate with my mother,” said Gabel. “In this space under her name, I think she’d be amazed and happy about it.”
The Arlene Francis Center is located at 99 Sixth St. For more information about upcoming events or renting the facility, call 528-3009 or visit arlenefranciscenter.org.