John "Jack" McNulty says it wasn't until he was 27 that he realized he was a "closet weirdo." Now 44, he had moved from Chicago to South Beach in 1997 and then to Fort Lauderdale in 2003. He remembers that painful void of not having any friends. That is what motivates him today, as he runs Makers Square — a tool shop that doubles as a social club.
During those lonely days of the early 2000s, McNulty, an IT director by day, took up making masks and art cars. Eventually, he connected with some like-minded souls — a band of misfits who like to party and build things but aren't working artists. One day, he and his pals bought a bus online, gutted it, built it out, named it the "Naughty Bus," and drove it to Burning Man. Then they brought it back to Broward.
Inspired by the performance art they'd witnessed in the Nevada desert, "Circus Basura" was born. They built a merry-go-round made of bicycles and then an elaborate and interactive circus installation for FAT Village's Day of the Dead event in 2011. From there, the group wanted to have a permanent, community warehouse, so McNulty and his partners — his wife, Elaine Scantlen; and friend Brian Weiner — researched the "maker" scene that had first cropped up in France and Germany for tool-shop sharing purposes and then, in the past three years, spread to San Francisco.
"I think there's a backlash against the digital age," McNulty says. "What's happening is everybody is on their cell phones and people lost touch with their hands. If you look at the hipster movement, where they grow crazy eggs or they do hand-blown glass light bulbs, you can see how making things has changed." He muses: "If I were to do my career over again, I would have been a plumber. Learning a trade that you can do anywhere — here, Denver — is a smart move."
He noticed that "there's an inherent loneliness in today's world that people feel. Most people my age have three friends — the guy they grew up with, a neighbor, and the guy you work with. You can have more than that."
With Makers Square, he's providing an antidote to these modern ills. After two years of searching, McNulty and his team finally opened the facility in October. On a recent Thursday night, he guided a group around the funhouse-like facility that houses $100,000 worth of tools and industrial machinery.
The facility follows a health-club model: Sign up for a membership and get access to all the machines in three garages. The metal shop contains rows of hammers, nails, saws, drills, and some serious welding equipment. The model shop has two 3-D printers — one small and the other industrial-sized. And the sewing shop, the most popular room, is stocked with equipment to please any aspiring costumemaker.
Classes are taught on an ongoing basis — in cosplay costumemaking, carpentry, and robotics. Here, it's possible to use a 3-D printer to fabricate a pair of plastic tennis shoes. "Most people fear the tool, so when we train them and they see that they can use it to make things, their confidence is transformed," McNulty says.
On the terrace is a standalone pool. A tightrope is suspended above it. At nighttime events, a juggler can be seen teetering on it while circus music blares from speakers. At parties like this month's Critical Mass afterparty, happening Friday, January 31, guests can mingle around the wooden bar and barbecue area. The Naughty Bus is situated near the bar area.
McNulty eventually quit his IT job to focus on the new space, although his wife and partner still work full-time. "My wife and I always had a love/hate relationship with Fort Lauderdale, because we travel a lot," he says. "Fort Lauderdale has the bones of something wonderful, but it doesn't have the guts and muscles. When I give tours of this place, I try to tell people why we shouldn't bail on Fort Lauderdale.
"Let's make this place 'BrowWeird," he chuckles. "Let's celebrate the quirkiness. A lot of places are artificially weird. South Florida is naturally quirky. South Florida provides 30 percent of CNN news. Wounded souls come here, leave their communities; just got a divorce, change one letter in their name... you know why Key West is so weird? Because it's literally the end of the road."
There are a few other "maker" spaces underway in South Florida, including Hacklab in Boynton Beach and MakeShop Miami. McNulty says the community spirit is flowing. "Instead of saying, 'Hey, I'll just bring my sewing machine and I'll work on my thing while you work on your thing,' people started sharing tools and working on projects together." Makers, he says, "make things to learn mostly how to make it" — not with the primary aim of selling their creations.
"There are a lot of creatives in Broward; they just don't know each other," McNulty says. "If you ask anyone who is driving away with a U-Haul why they're leaving, they'll tell you it's because they didn't meet any friends. We want to be the new Moose Lodges of the future."