Doug McCraw owns most of the buildings in FAT Village.
Doug McCraw owns most of the buildings in FAT Village.
Photo by Michael McElroy

FAT Village Struggles to Create an Arts District in Culture-Starved Broward

UPDATE: Three years later, FAT Village has become a cultural core of Fort Lauderdale, giving the city an alternative to its long-standing Spring Break scene.

First there was darkness.

Then a single point of light exploded with the brightness of three suns, shattering the night with a crack and the smell of ozone.

Paul Fioretti worked the light between his hands. Through the tinted glass of his facemask, he watched iron return to its beginnings: a ballet of metal melting into metal. Heavy pipes and gears glowed red-hot as he bonded them together into sculpture.

The light spread through the workroom, flickered on old oil drums and shelves, and shone through a bay door into an alleyway. Some of the light fled into the late-February sky, and some of it reflected off the sides of buildings along the railroad tracks.

From balconies, people could see the light. They saw a quiet intersection, the nexus of a makeshift village where, for the past 13 years, tenants had come and gone, creating things as they passed through.

The people who worked there — a handful of artists and entrepreneurs — wanted more than anything to make the place succeed. What did success mean? Visitors, mostly. Somebody to notice this place instead of driving by on the thoroughfares a block away. Somebody to come by and linger at the galleries and studios, marvel at their beauty, spend some money.

Success had already come for Fioretti. It arrived one night in late 2010, when he was working late at South Florida Window Lift, the cluttered shop he had run in the neighborhood for 20 years. During the day, he made and repaired the motors that move car windows. But something flashed in the back of Fioretti's mind that night, igniting a connection like the white-hot arc of his welding tools: an impulse he had ignored for a long time. On the nights to come, he began experimenting with discarded parts, building a second life as an artist after his wife and kids had gone to bed.

If you stand on the corner outside Fioretti's workshop and look across Fifth Street, down First Avenue to where it dead-ends at Sistrunk Boulevard, you'll see a long line of warehouses down the left side of the avenue. Some are large; some are more like little concrete offices; some have domed roofs like inflatable tents. On the other side of the avenue are a few empty lots, an auto mechanic.

This is FAT Village, a humble crucifix in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It sits between the Florida East Coast rail line and the central artery of Andrews Avenue. It's not very well lit, and parking is an informal affair. Shops that have windows need to cover them with iron bars.

Perhaps tougher than the problem with crime is FAT Village's battle with perception: Fort Lauderdale, and Broward County overall, were long considered wastelands of culture, even as arts districts sprouted in Miami, Delray Beach, and West Palm. Few people expect to find great art in a gritty, landlocked section of Fort Lauderdale.

Still, the developer who owns nearly all of the property, Doug McCraw, charges relatively high rent. Many of the artists who helped form FAT Village have fled for cheaper real estate elsewhere, and those who have remained continue to struggle.

FAT Village exists almost by accident, a remnant of a shining economic plan gone bad. If everything goes well, this sleeping neighborhood will become South Florida's next great arts district. If something — money, people, artists — fails to materialize, FAT Village might just remain another abandoned byway out of Fort Lauderdale's industrial past.

On a recent afternoon, Doug McCraw stood in a room that smelled like printer ink. About five-foot-five, 61 years old, wearing a polo shirt with khakis, he leaned into the wall and squinted at a portrait of artist Chuck Close. Two balding men with glasses, communing. McCraw tapped his fingernail on the portrait, a metal plate covered with a dye-sublimation print. A pair of tiny pug dogs snorted around his loafers.

"The work they're doing here is really one-of-a-kind," he said, the word kind stretching out in a Birmingham drawl softened by 35 years of South Florida.

He was inside Digital Artwear, a tenant in FAT Village. Neal Yaffe, the proprietor, showed off a shelf of digitally printed objects: messenger bags, tiles, notebooks. Yaffe's assistant, a hip-looking kid named Tone, prepared packages for shipment to clients around the country. As a working shop with an established outside client base, Digital Artwear is one of the village's more stable tenants. McCraw likes them and wants them to stay. He owns the building, and they pay their rent.

That's not always how things go in FAT Village. Some tenants credit McCraw with designing and championing this arts district he created from nothing. But others say his quest is simply about making money from artists, building an arts district as a way to give value to an unwanted stretch of warehouses. McCraw says he's given up on unloading the properties to a developer, but changes in the economy have proved him wrong before.

Back in the '90s, McCraw himself rented the space that houses Digital Artwear. He ran a document storage company and needed space to expand his archives. Back then, it was just one in a row of obsolete warehouses, filled with crap that nobody wanted. He rented this building and then a larger one next door.

"I never dreamed when I was using the buildings that I would own them one day," he said. But he had already been thinking about property investment, ever since he made a bunch of money flipping a house in the early '80s. Then, in the late '90s, dot-com fortunes were on the rise, and property was hot. McCraw's developer friend, Alan Hooper, was planning the Avenue Lofts, a set of high-rise condominiums just to the south along Andrews Avenue. McCraw decided to make an offer. In 1998, for a sale price of just over a million dollars, the buildings were his.

He inherited a few tenants, like a theatrical prop manufacturing shop that employed recovering drug and alcohol abusers. It was called Starting Over Enterprises. Despite its good works, Starting Over was soon moving out. Doug Jones and his fledgling event company, Sixth Star, moved in. Jones rented a wood chipper and used it to destroy the props and detritus of addiction that were left behind. The piles of wood chips still sit behind the building by the railroad tracks.

The tracks. It seems like such a cliché, the role they serve, separating this side from "the other side": the traditionally black Sistrunk neighborhood. Inevitably, black men with dreads, black women with strollers, and black children will walk down the right of way. And inevitably, the some of the mostly white artists and shopkeepers in FAT Village will watch them with suspicion. The intersection at First and Fifth has cleaned up considerably — "crack central," McCraw called it during his first days as a landlord — but occasional break-ins persist.

One day in January, an art collector with some money to spend was visiting the studio of Francisco Sheuat, an artist who had recently moved in. The prospective client parked his silver Dodge SUV on the street outside, and he and Sheuat talked business in the doorway, looking on nervously as a group of kids wearing skullcaps sat on the top of the wall and threw rocks. As if preordained, one of the rocks smashed the windshield of the SUV. The collector didn't buy anything that day.

McCraw's dream, at the beginning of the century, was to build FAT Village into a technology workplace. The name — an acronym for "Flagler Arts and Technology," as tenants are constantly having to explain — occurred to him during a drive to the beach. He envisioned a collection of businesses hooked up to T1 internet lines, building the future from sunny Florida.

Then the dot-com bubble burst. Tenants lost money, and McCraw was stuck with warehouses he couldn't rent. So he drew up a contract to sell them all, to pull out of the neighborhood. The buyer would probably demolish them for condos. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma stopped the deal.

Suddenly, said McCraw, "There was nobody here to buy it. There's still not really anybody here to buy it."

And so FAT Village was born, an attempt to do something unconventional with space that nobody seemed to want. McCraw says he has lost millions of dollars maintaining the buildings. He insists he can't afford to be a philanthropist by renting spaces to starving artists below market rate, but he says the capacity of art to generate wonder excites him more than the bottom line: "When we do art walks, nobody is more surprised than me. I just get goose bumps. It's more than anything I imagined in the beginning."

Saturday night. Meredith Lasher sat in a director's chair inside the roll-up door of Sixth Star Entertainment, legs crossed, eyes twinkling. "Hey, no photographs," she called in a joking, sing-song tone to visitors who stopped to take pictures of 20-foot-high shelves filled with stuff. Lasher runs the Women's Theatre Project in a space shared with Sixth Star.

On the last Saturday of the month, FAT Village opens its warehouses for an art walk. Inside Sixth Star, a scale-model Christ the Redeemer beams down from a high shelf; bits of old vanity mirrors and mock-up storefronts look like the wreckage from a bombed-out Our Town. A Seminole Hard Rock logo glitters near the ceiling. Near the back, there's an Oscar statue left over from a private party in the Fort Lauderdale Isles neighborhood.

Sixth Star is an example of the kind of shop that works indisputably well in FAT Village: an event-planning and stage-show company, with a healthy client base, that needs somewhere to work. The art walks, for it, are an opportunity to show off what it does, but the audience is an afterthought. It doesn't need to make money from the people who drink its wine.

FAT Village wasn't crowded on this Saturday in February. Maybe a hundred people walked the block, ducking into galleries and workshops. The audience felt more like a group of friends exploring a neighborhood than the crush of humanity seen during art walks in Miami's Wynwood or West Palm's Antiques Row. With Hula-Hooping competitions in the street and plenty of time to talk with shopkeepers, the vibe was right. Still, if these crowds were any indication of whether FAT Village would succeed, it was clear the neighborhood had some work to do.

Down the block, the large warehouse sat wide open. The inside was a bright cathedral with cement floors and wooden rafters, a void that could likely hold your childhood home a few times over. McCraw stood in the corner, serving wine in plastic cups. On the walls were large abstract paintings by Miami-based artist David Marsh.

A gray-and-white floating web hung as the centerpiece of the room, extending from the ceiling trusses and lit from all sides by spotlights that cast a soft net of shadows. Jamey Grimes, a soft-spoken artist from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, created the web, called Roil. Grimes wandered the open room with a camera and tripod, taking pictures of his work. Around 10 p.m., a band called Pocket of Lollipops began to play at the back of the warehouse. About five mildly excited 20-somethings gathered around to sort of dance. A few older art patrons chatted with McCraw, who explained how he discovered Grimes' art in a Birmingham gallery and matched him with David Marsh. The space was empty for long stretches at a time.

"Some of the art walks were good; some were terrible," recalled Alex Benitez, a practicing artist with a retail shop who moved out of FAT Village when his one-year lease expired in December. They've been growing in attendance recently, and the feeling on the streets is livelier than ever: All the shops keep their doors open, and performances at the village's two black-box theaters draw crowds. Still, the events lack publicity.

"People are surprised when they're here for a show and there's an art walk going on," said Lasher. "It's like an underground secret that only the cool kids know about."

Leah Brown's 18 Rabbit Gallery displayed a group exhibit of conceptual sound art, including a set of speakers filled with water, sand, and beans. Flutelike contraptions screwed into the air-conditioning ducts broke the air with a high-pitched whistle. At Andrews Living Arts Studio, a sold-out crowd watched a premiere of The Laramie Project.

On the corner, Fioretti had transformed his shop into a gallery. Two welded and polished iron torches burned outside the entrance, and a Kool-Aid fountain circulated above a tray of cookies. His artwork was on display: a working clock, some smaller pieces, and a cactus-like floor sculpture made of heavy polished gears.

Fioretti is the only artist in FAT Village whose building isn't owned by McCraw, but he may have had the most success during the art walk: He said he received multiple commissions during the three-hour event. They included two more torches, which he said he would sell for $1,000 each, and a $5,000 dancing skeleton, made from the engine valve of a decommissioned battleship.

Around the corner, a storefront on Andrews sat dark and empty. It used to house Gallery 101, which until February was a star tenant of FAT Village, bringing in collectors and serving as an anchor for the village's eastern edge. Then, almost overnight, it was gone. Taped to the door was an eviction notice, claiming $18,788.07 in unpaid rent, signed by P. Douglas McCraw.

On a sunny, salt-sprayed afternoon on Galt Ocean Mile, Adam White reclined on a black leather couch in the new location of Gallery 101. A stocky man with silvered hair and a taste for gossip, White expressed no regrets about packing up his gallery and leaving FAT Village. He was in good company: Alex Benitez, the artist who moved out in December, set up shop in a retail space a block away from White's new gallery. Rachel Henriques, another FAT Village artist, joined them in March.

The Galt Mile is a fusty strip along A1A north of Oakland Park Boulevard, known for buildings and residents that might have been glamorous in the 1960s. The neighborhood shares a name with John Galt, Ayn Rand's industrialist hero in Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, Galt persuades the world's creative leaders to go on strike, revolting against a collectivist society that suppresses individual freedom.

"I've sold more art here in the last three weeks than I did in six months in FAT Village," said White. He said the pedestrian mall around his gallery, along with a mix of amenities like a wine bar, restaurants, and other galleries, made Galt Ocean Mile a more pleasant place for people to buy art. He also cited the economic benefits: "I was paying $3,800 a month in my old space, and now I'm paying a third of that." White and McCraw would not discuss details of the eviction.

At Galt Ocean Plaza, the shopping center where Gallery 101 is now located, businesses include old independent restaurants, hair salons, boutiques, a cigar store. The diagonal parking spaces are filled with Volvo sedans and old Cadillacs. Parking costs 50 cents an hour. Still, White said it had something that FAT Village lacked: people.

In 2010, the Art of Alex Studio was one of the most prolific and visible artist's shops in FAT Village, occupying the corner of the intersection opposite Fioretti's shop. Alex Benitez painted swirling, cartoonish masses of color that hung on prominent display during art walks; he painted wooden signs saying "FAT Village" and attached them to stop-sign posts along the avenue.

Ultimately, the bottom line won. "For sure I gave up the 'hip factor,' " said Benitez. "In the end, if I'm in a mall and can sell more art, I'll give up hipness any day of the week."

Benitez said city codes prevented the artists' work from spilling out into the street. Even those stop-sign paintings he did worried a few of his FAT Village neighbors, who didn't want a bad relationship with the city. Similar codes prohibit vendors from setting up tables at art walks, and tenants are not allowed to hang large signs off the buildings.

Slowly, people are moving forward anyway: Local graffiti artists have been painting murals on the backs of the warehouses, facing the railroad tracks and the Regal Trace housing complex. McCraw and Leah Brown, of 18 Rabbit Gallery, are planning murals on the front sides, facing the avenue. McCraw recently received a set of street-improvement grants to install glass doors and roll-down aluminum grates over the entrances.

The tenants all agree that a vibrant-looking streetscape would draw more traffic. Still, they find it hard to reach consensus. Jim Hammond, owner of the Puppet Network puppetry and scenery shop in FAT Village, said somebody needs to take the lead if the appearance of the neighborhood is going to change, even if permission from the city doesn't come.

"Maybe the artists have just been too well-behaved," he said.

While Fioretti welded, another nocturnal transformation was taking place. A hundred feet up First Avenue, light poured out of a small door at the front of the largest warehouse, now emptied of artwork. At the center of it, in a small leather club chair, sat McCraw. He ate takeout pizza under spotlights as workers in black moved velvet screens into place all around him.

He had been talking about this for months. The workers were setting up the display and seating areas for an expensive whiskey-tasting event, sponsored by Dewars. "Very slick, very high-end," cooed McCraw as he spoke about the event. McCraw liked the whiskey-tasting because it paid good money, and it would bring the attention of well-heeled Floridians with disposable incomes. But some FAT Village tenants didn't think this move toward money and luxury and away from direct support of the arts was a good idea. Was McCraw selling out his goal of giving creativity a place to flourish?

"He's renting to a gym and a tequila company now," said White in his new gallery. "That has nothing to do with the arts in any way, shape, or form. He can't figure out what he wants to do with the space."

In fact, McCraw's vision for the village is hard to pin down, in part because he's a businessman who has learned to hedge his bets. After getting stuck with a couple of blocks of warehouses he can barely afford, McCraw will not act on idealism alone. When first asked by New Times about his vision for the future of FAT Village, McCraw was vague. "Well, I'd like to get a couple more high-tech companies in here..." He trailed off.

When asked again a few days later, he painted a more detailed picture. "I see murals, lighting on the street. Boutique restaurants, maybe a microbrewery. Tech companies, artists, studios... I'd like to see it be permanent, not just something that's around until the rents go up. But you have to get critical mass."

McCraw seems to have decided that the possibility of a pedestrian-based creative district is worth the money he's sunk into it. But unless artists stay and people visit, calling something a "creative district" won't accomplish anything.

One of the neighborhood's newest tenants, with a gleaming space anchoring the north end of First Avenue, was run by McCraw's idealistic younger counterpart.

Travis Webster is 29 years old, a clean-cut young professional — though he'd cringe at the term yuppie — with long brown hair. A self-described "business guy," he helped found the Collide Factory, which he calls "a creative and collaborative idea incubator." Like McCraw, he has business acumen that's stretched to its limits by the scale of his plans.

In the summer of 2010, Webster and a few friends, including local singer/songwriter and coffee-shop owner Ryan Alexander, converted the trapezoidal warehouse into a slick, air-conditioned space dominated by two shipping containers expertly covered in graffiti. Webster needed the space for his business, Collide Brand Partners, which would provide marketing and branding services. He decided to turn that into something far bigger by renting out desks to other "creatives."

"I thought, what if my office was everybody's office?" said Webster, sitting at a table made of rough-hewn wooden planks that he and his friends nailed together.

There was an element of subdued terror in Webster's voice when he arrived in the empty space after a cathartic bike ride on an afternoon in late February. He said he had put nearly all of his money into the space, and it was still too early to know if the pipeline of clients he envisioned would flow though the Collide Factory, enabling him to continue paying his rent and hosting shows or concerts during art walks. "I'm going to wait," he said. "I look forward to the day when it's actively working and breathing by itself."

After Fioretti stopped welding and McCraw went home for the night, as props and scenery sat tucked away in dark corners, a freight train headed north on the railroad tracks. It passed workshops and studios and the wood-chipped remnants of Starting Over. It passed the relics of false starts, the vaulted space of the big warehouse, and the gym that has nothing to do with art. The train engine hummed and the boxcars rolled, clack-clack, clack-clack, over the joints, and finally, it went by the graffiti-clad back of the Collide Factory, a testament to optimism at the end of the block. The lights were off; the silver overhead doors were drawn down and locked. The space waited for people, and miles away on that February night, Webster waited for a day when his project — his huge, messy, all-too-real project by the tracks — could sustain itself.

Webster had recently taken stock of the inventory that had cost nearly all of his money. "We need two more desks, a couple of chairs," he remarked. "We have to finish what we started. Otherwise, this is just a big warehouse."

Less than two months later, on April 14, sad news would appear on Webster's Twitter feed: "Friends, I have officially closed the doors at Collide Factory FAT Village, due to overwhelming complications." He would move to Orlando, leaving behind FAT Village for good.

The train rolled away into the distance. All around the neighborhood, there was silence, and darkness, and space.


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