How Flagler Village Became Fort Lauderdale's Cultural Core

The Masterminds Behind Fort Lauderdale's Flagler Village from Voice Media Group and Mitchel Worley on Vimeo.

Flip-flops aren't dancing shoes. But on any given afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, you can find too-tan folks working off hangovers by chugging Coors Light, jamming out to covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd... in flip-flops.

That's only part of Fort Lauderdale in 2014. Over the past five years or so, the city has taken a turn for the more cultural. This is especially true in the area north of downtown known as Flagler Village. Dedicated business owners, locals, developers, and community members have upgraded the blocks just west of Federal Highway, south of Sunrise Boulevard, and north of NE Fourth Street. Though it is still desolate in places, mainstay McGuire's Irish Pub is as popular as ever, small nearby businesses like Radio-Active Records are thriving, and mid-rises are quickly going up.

Growth started in FAT Village (Flagler, Arts, Technology), the locus of last-Saturday-of-the-month art walks that have recently drawn thousands to the area. The founder of this neighborhood is Doug McCraw. Back in 1999, when he purchased properties here, even he was hesitant to drive through the area at night. "We knew the potential was there for years," McCraw explains. "We just had to figure out how to do it."

Two more neighborhood pioneers are Jim Hammond of the Puppet Network and Iron Forge Press' Chuck Loose. They separately opened up shop there around 2009, the same year the art walk started. They later informally partnered to help promote the art walks. "The area [was] branded as an arts district for a decade but unfortunately was lacking artists," Hammond explains.

"From our back roll-up door, I could see folks in the park across the way smoking crack and heroin and having sex."

For the first three years of the event, Hammond set up puppet shows in the street for free. He cofounded the FAT Village Arts Association with a few others, developed the first maps and websites of the area, and branded the art walk with Loose. Once FAT Village became too crowded for him, he moved his work space to Wilton Manors.

Loose describes the area as once "pretty sketchy" and full of crackheads but says the artists' presence has helped legitimize it. "At first, there were numerous break-ins; some tools and laptops were stolen. From our back roll-up door, I could see folks in the park across the way smoking crack and heroin and having sex."

FAT Village's partnerships with groups like ArtServe, Girls' Club, and the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale have given the new scene the art world's stamp of approval. The recent introduction of trolley rides and a new working rental space for eight artists make it an artist- and small-business-friendly, slowly growing hot spot.

"It certainly is becoming an urban arts community," McCraw says. "Everything... is connected to the arts in some ways. It's turning into a real urban, walkable, live/work/play environment."

He also assures that there will be more "really exciting changes" like the addition of another restaurant and a microbrewery. "It's time," he says.

Dean Trantalis, a Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner, says redevelopment of the area has been pondered for a decade. There have been condos built and improvements to the streets. "This is the new downtown," Trantalis says of Flagler Village. "It is the focus of the next generation of Fort Lauderdale."

FAT Village's growth has spread through the surrounding blocks. Three homegrown businesses have become particularly strong anchors of the area's nontraditional nightlife and cultural scene: craft beer bar Laser Wolf, C&I Studios, and artist-run gallery and performance space Jump the Shark. All are pioneers in Fort Lauderdale's cultural renaissance.

Jump the Shark's Garo Gallo is keeping original art and music alive on NE Fourth Avenue.

Pastel geometric shapes and maroon starscapes decorate the exterior warehouse wall of Jump the Shark, at 810 NE Fourth Ave. A hot-dog truck sits out front. Inside is a huge, womb-like space waiting to be filled with sound and bodies. Paintings and sculptures make it a gallery, but it feels like a home too, with a quaintly decorated kitchen. Owner Garo Gallo's office is bathed in red light and decorated with tastefully cool stuff like Sonic Youth posters. Out back, a huge stage stands next to a particularly interesting new feature: a wooden beer and wine bar with a glittery counter.

The space was popularized as IWAN (Independent Working Artists Network) the Bubble in 2009 by Gallo and his then-partner, Yvonne Colon. Together, the couple had started throwing shows and doing "weird" showcases six years before at the Fort Lauderdale Saloon.

"The space just screamed 'Freedom!' Like you could do crazy shit back here and get away with it."

"I started promoting out of necessity," he explains. He had several bands back then, including the power pop trio Dooms de Pop, and wanted to get gigs both for his and others' groups.

"When we first moved into this neighborhood, it was pretty much like warehouses, but the space just screamed 'Freedom!' Like you could do crazy shit back here and get away with it."

Gallo and Colon looked at the space now filled by Jump the Shark before the recession, but rent was well out of reach. It had previously been a mechanic's shop and a pottery place. After 2008, rent dropped, and it suddenly became a possibility. In 2009, they opened an artist-run space with plenty of room to create and showcase original work.

Gallo says the success of Miami's Wynwood Arts District encouraged them to open the Bubble, though they were technically already putting together events before that Miami neighborhood gained popularity.

At the Bubble, one of the shows they hosted was Sexy You, a play, fashion, and music show where hairstylists and artists made up visitors when they walked in. Then there was the show by Christopher Ian Macfarlane that included an upside-down forest of Christmas trees called Haunted Mirror Forest: Crap by Chris.

A few months ago, Colon and Gallo parted ways. Gallo explains that they "were no longer able to function as a partnership." He wanted to invest in the space further, and she didn't.

Gallo has implemented changes, among them renaming it Jump the Shark. The place's independent roots inspired it, he says. Artists can jump the corporate "sharks" and showcase their work their own way. He's already thrown a few events under the new name -- he calls them "beta tests" -- but the grand opening is this week.

"What Jump the Shark is really here to do is just be a vehicle for artists to have as much freedom in their expression as possible," Gallo elaborates. "We're a place for culture where you can have a beer."

He's still making music with Dooms de Pop. The group just finished a new EP with a relatively new bass player, Shane Walker. The band, like the space, is changing. "It's like a whole rebirth thing. We're just getting better at what we do and using our experience properly."

He thinks small improvements in the art walk festivities are bringing in new crowds and people from other counties. "There's a real push for the arts here," Gallo says. "The city wants it to be a place youngsters want to move to, so I guess, inadvertently, we're making it happen through these types of events."

All of this officially launches November 29 with 17 bands, 20 exhibiting artists, muralists, DJs, vendors, and, of course, hot dogs.

For now, Jump the Shark will be bringing music and arts from the tricounty area to this Fourth Avenue block of Flagler Village three nights a week. Every Friday and Saturday, there'll be programming, and on Wednesdays, everyone's welcome at Out There, an open-mic variety night.

Gallo is also hosting events with other promoters like Kevin Burns from Talent Farm and working with a gallery just outside New York City, Guttenberg Arts. All of this officially launches with Beacon, the opening-night party on November 29 that is scheduled to include 17 bands, 20 exhibiting artists, muralists, DJs, vendors, and, of course, considering the truck out front, hot dogs.

Jump the Shark has already gained credibility and is offering people a real scene. "Miami's going to shine bright, and we [in Fort Lauderdale] are going to kind of be the black sheep," he assesses. "But I think because of that, we're creating more interesting music and art. We're still the outsiders. We still have a legitimate underground feel. It doesn't feel exploited yet."

C&I Studios has enlivened FAT Village and art walks with interactive productions.

C&I Studios, at 541 NW First Ave., Fort Lauderdale, is a work/play space that's quickly become the social center for FAT Village. It looks like it comes straight out of a fashionable, wood-loving Brooklynite's Pinterest. It is composed of a large studio for shoots of all sorts, an Airstream, and a coffee bar with overstuffed couches, tall walls of books, and old-timey wooden window frames imported from Washington, D.C.

"We're more than a production company, but we're not an ad agency," co-owner Joshua Miller explains about his enterprise. "Our bread and butter is helping companies and individuals market themselves with media. The media part of C&I is the backbone. It's what funds everything."

If you're wondering what "everything" is, you can get an eyeful of it at FAT Village. It's there that C&I offers visitors interactive visual arts experiences, live music, and a place to get coffee at its bar, which is called Next Door.

See also: The People of FAT Village Art Walk October 2014

Founders Miller, Justin Mein, and Ian Dawson met during middle school in a Maryland suburb of D.C. Their families were friendly and used to go on vacations together. Now all three own a quickly expanding media company they call "an idea agency," with offices in five cities. The three jet among D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina marketing products from concept to storyboarding to casting to makeup to preparing for television.

Miller explains that in the early days, he agreed to do a film reel for a woman who wanted to become a news anchor. After he completed it, she wrote him a disappointingly small check for $45. But it paid off big-time. Six months later, she was working with the Congressional Media Group, which does the media for the U.S. Congress. After Congress let go its creative and production staff several years ago, the woman for whom Miller made the $45 reel sent its business to C&I.

"To this day, they're our biggest client," Miller says. "And it's about us taking a risk and doing that job for her for nothing and then building that relationship with her and seeing where it went."

Miller came to Fort Lauderdale in 2008 to work with a client. Before occupying its current space, C&I was located in his apartment, then in the Progresso Plaza at 901 Progresso Drive -- where Laser Wolf is situated -- and in a spot on Commercial Boulevard and Dixie Highway, which is where he started doing things like movie nights and Taco Tuesdays.

When they first saw their current space, they had to clear out their bank accounts to secure it. Miller was considering leaving the Sunshine State and heading home to the D.C. area. "Before we moved to FAT Village, I only knew Florida was like Las Olas. I was like, this sucks. Then I thought, 'No man, if this town sucks, it's because no one is doing anything.' It was like, 'Let's just build them a home.'"

When they started here in 2010, there wasn't much happening. The area was nearly deserted but for a CrossFit gym. "Art walk was really lame... but it's hard to do something when you don't have the support of the street," says Miller.

C&I didn't want art to be just something you saw on the wall. They hoped to make it like all their events: interactive. Once they created four sets to match each season. People came in and did their own photo shoots. Summer had a fan for wind and a swing. Autumn included changing leaves. "You could be a part of it," Miller says. "We wanted to take these art walks from having 17 people to having 1,700 people."

These days, the art walk regularly draws 2,000 to 3,000 people. C&I has gone from humble movie nights to people not wanting to leave after art walk ends. Miller laughs that he's heard rumors about the company, that they're funded by a church or something because they do so many free events. "It's really not about the money," he explains. "It's about developing a culture of creativity."

Los Angeles indie act Local Natives actually found C&I after turning to Yelp for cool spots in Fort Lauderdale. Miller says the firm cares a lot about music and scores all the commercials it produces in-house. That attention to detail carries over into the ever-expanding array of events. This past summer, C&I helped put on a pop-up concert series, Summer Soundtrack, where only 100 people could attend at a location announced last minute.

They've also brought in out-of-town acts like Forlorn Strangers and helped foster the careers of locals like Corey Bost, Civilian, and KIDS. Josiah Sampson of the latter band is Miller's brother-in-law, and three of the guys in the band work at C&I.

Miller sees this as just the beginning of a long relationship with Fort Lauderdale, its residents, and surrounding businesses. "To see other people come into FAT Village after us, watching what we did, that's really exciting too. People have started to duplicate what we've been doing, which is exciting for the town and exciting for the people."

Photography by Ian Witlen
Laser Wolf's Chris Bellus says, "In ten years, who knows? This could be an expansion of downtown." 
Laser Wolf's Chris and Jordan Bellus have created a craft beer oasis in Flagler Village.

Occasionally, a cargo train roars down the tracks in front of Laser Wolf, at 901 Progresso Drive. It's debatable whether this adds to the ambiance of the bar or disrupts the consumption of local brews. That depends on where you're sitting. Inside, the bar has a reddish glow, Total Recall plays on the TV, local art decorates the walls, and after a few drinks, someone might even play the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade game that fittingly sits by the entrance.

But step outside for a smoke and you'll find a glittering, green courtyard shared with the rest of the 1920s historic building.

Brothers Chris and Jordan Bellus opened Laser Wolf on February 11, 2011. The Wilton Manors natives, along with their dad, Tim Bellus, did about 90 percent of the work -- everything from building the bar and painting the walls to the plumbing. "We were like, all in or nothing," Chris Bellus says of their attitude at the time.

See also: Laser Wolf's Three Year Anniversary (Photos)

Bellus notes that the two had "a million different jobs" before opening the bar, including being trained as firefighters and paramedics. They learned the most about running a small, local business from BC Surf, a Fort Lauderdale-based national surf and sport chain. Chris worked at BC for about ten years, off and on, and Jordan for about five.

When they started looking online, they knew this 700-square-foot space was special. For a short period in the early 1990s, artist Clifton Childree used the space to run Mudhouse, a coffee joint that embraced '90s java culture. "You could see six local bands play and you could be 17, 16 even," Bellus remembers. "We would come and sneak beers in the parking lot and then come in and pay three bucks and see an amazing show."

When they finally opened the place, they didn't want it to be just another Fort Lauderdale sports bar. There would be no football on TV, young kids with fake IDs, retirement folks, or creeps. "No jerks" became their unofficial motto.

"I think traditionally, everybody considered Fort Lauderdale as downtown Fort Lauderdale," Bellus says. "There's a handful of great bars down there, but in my mind, something will close and they'll open the same exact bar under a different name. I'd like to see more local businesses and smaller, more thoughtful approaches."

The crowd includes a lot of locals, from police officers to construction workers and artists. Young professionals sit around and decompress after work, and beer lovers from all over the world come to taste Florida brews that are impossible to find in their hometowns.

And they were craft beer trailblazers in Broward. "There wasn't much of a craft beer presence in South Florida," says Bellus. Interest in microbrews was growing all over the world. With the help of local firm Brown Distributing, they ordered drinks they knew people would like such as local suds from Wynwood Brewery and Cigar City.

Business has grown because many folks are "not willing to go to Las Olas, downtown, or the beach," Bellus says. He attributes at least part of the success to the nearby art walk boom.

The brothers are also music fans who buy local art and employ musicians. They've had multiple shows in the courtyard and have hosted pop-up shops in the bar with the now-on-hiatus musical collective and seasonal party-throwers Black Locust Society.

Bellus is hopeful that people will see what's happening at Laser Wolf and find inspiration. "In ten years, who knows? This could be an expansion of downtown --- you won't even know the difference. In a good way, hopefully."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Liz has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has since written for publications and outlets such as Miami New Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Ocean Drive, the Huffington Post, NBC Miami, Time Out Miami, Insomniac, the Daily Dot, and the Atlantic. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor, was the weekend news editor at Inverse, and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.
Contact: Liz Tracy