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Whatever is going to revitalize Deep Ellum begs the question "What is Deep Ellum?" At least that's how 30-year-old Tony Fundaro sees it. Fundaro is a founder and executive director of the ambitious $3 million cultural center Life in Deep Ellum, set to open Saturday, January 20. He is also the lead pastor of Deep Ellum Church, which is housed in the Life complex, but Fundaro is quick to point out that the nonprofit Life is a cultural center first with the concept of impacting the social and economic community. When Fundaro approached the city about opening the center, the Deep Ellum Residents Council caught wind and petitioned to have the Deep Ellum Church reside there with its congregation of some 150 to 200 people. Council co-director and founder Gianna Madrini saw it as an opportunity. "People don't realize how much of a neighborhood Deep Ellum is," she says. "They are attracting a really unique demographic because they are a nondenominational church. It has a broad cross of people. They don't look like Bible thumpers in any sort of way."
However, Life in Deep Ellum wants to avoid the religious identification that may scare people away. With a decidedly non-religious environment, artistic director Rocky Presley states, "The idea of Christian culture is our opponent."
Russell Hobbs, owner of the Deep Ellum nightclub The Door, says that type of approach won't last long. "People will just know that's what it is." However, he's not at all against the concept. His venue is also faith-based with both national and local bands, Christian and non-Christian, playing each weekend. He considers the similar spot good competition with the same goal in mind. "God wants to show that he is part of everyday life," the born-again Christian says. "Deep Ellum has no vision or leadership. Tony is part of the goal, the potential future."
While Presley has high hopes for the future of both Life and the neighborhood, he also has lofty sights in his role as artistic director. "We'd like to be icons of Deep Ellum. A foundation for people's success and a place to put a national spotlight on artists," he says. Bands may be attracted to the venue considering Fundaro and Presley "spent the money for bands to look and sound great" and are intent on "treating bands like they were gold and helping to combat the reputation that Deep Ellum is not a place where bands are treated properly." With a venue that can accommodate up to 1,100 people—standing, that is—ellum:ONSTAGE (as Life's music venue will be called) is immediately in the big leagues with The Door, Gypsy Tea Room and the recently closed/possibly to be reopened Trees. Neither Presley nor Fundaro are concerned about not being located on the main drag of Main, Commerce and Elm streets. What ellum:ONSTAGE does have going for it is its own parking lot and Taylor Street's lack of parking meters, at least for now.
Back to the question of "what is Deep Ellum?" Hobbs described it as "a free party in the '80s before people tried to come in and make a buck," meaning that commerce, instead of the people, began to run the place. And for a more profound take on it, he says "Deep Ellum is Dallas' roots. Dallas doesn't honor their roots." Fundaro and company take it down a notch to the simple idea of community, and these guys are in love with the concept. "We care for this community. We want to be where the community is. The urban family is thriving, not surviving," Fundaro says with all the conviction of a long-term resident, albeit he and his family are not living there now but plan to return. He also sees Life in Deep Ellum as a bridge, minus the Calatrava hoopla. "With extremes popping up all over Dallas, everyone is disconnected. We want to bridge that," Fundaro adds.
With that commitment to community, the center is poised to be the iPhone of Deep Ellum, with impressive multi-tasking capabilities in one spot. Life in Deep Ellum offers a program called Life Development, which Presley says is meant to provide community education such as after-school programs, rehabilitation and ESL classes. Add to that an art gallery with five local artists already booked along with a national artist. Want more? They will have day care available for a fee and an in-house recording and film studio that can be rented out. The list keeps going with a resale clothing store where everything is $10, cash-only and based on the honor system. Other than someone restocking items, the store will not be manned but only house a receptacle for the money. Madrini adds, "I'd love to see that work." They will also house the M?kah Coffee Bar, open during the week and all show times, with wi-fi of course. These economic initiatives will help to make Life a self-funding entity. "We are a nonprofit, but we didn't want to have a fund-raiser each time we needed money," Presley says.