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.