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.
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.