I Cover The Waterfront
The block-long drag of warehouses and empty lots that is Fort Lauderdale's FAT Village rattles as an endless freight train thunders by. The area doesn't look like much from the street. A new coffee shop by day, helmed by Brew Urban Cafe with a clientele consisting more of familiar neighbors than casual foot traffic, converts to a bar Friday and Saturday nights called ‘Next Door'. A fledgling gallery night brings Fort Lauderdale's creative types out to a neighborhood they falsely assume to be a ‘mini-Wynwood' but is really its own beast entirely.
These are the signs of what they call FAT Village's ‘second coming.' The name is an acronym for Flagler Arts and Technology Village, the commercial and creative core of the larger and more residential Flagler Village neighborhood. Geographically, Flagler Village is a wonky-shaped slice of pizza rather precisely bounded by Broward Boulevard, Federal Highway, Sunrise Boulevard, and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. It's easy to get overly optimistic about all the new things going on in FAT/Flagler Village, but as Joshua Miller of C&I Studios, a media production company and one of the creative types that make their base in the area, says, "we're not there yet. I see so many articles written about Flagler Village like we have made it. We haven't."
FAT Village hasn't, but it is definitely on its way. It's a neighborhood being created from a clean slate. Flagler Village in its current incarnation came with some context, but not much. There were the tracks of course, a stereotypical but sadly honest dividing line between neighborhoods and socio-economic classes. Broward and Federal are characterless highways, starkly separating Flagler from the lushness of Victoria Park or the developing density of Downtown. Railroad-side warehouses, the spaces that FAT Village's creative companies inhabit, are a marker of the neighborhood's mildly industrial past.
Seeing the opportunity of space within close proximity to Downtown Fort Lauderdale, Flagler Village has been molding its own identity, an identity made of many things that the rest of Fort Lauderdale is not. The city isn't very urban, so a mixture of townhouses, mid-rise apartment buildings, walkable streets, and a developing mixture of uses developed in Flagler Village. They built lofts in Flagler Village in 2001. Nobody was doing lofts in Fort Lauderdale, or possibly even anywhere else in South Florida at the time. In Flagler Village the development of a cultural scene is a matter of intense neighborhood focus. Indeed, it's the purpose for which FAT Village exists. As the larger Flagler Village gradually gentrified, FAT Village was originally supposed to be a dot com corridor; the first vision of its singular landlord Doug McCraw. That died with the dot com bust of the early aughts. Then it evolved more organically into an arts district, although the neighborhood's focus ultimately settled somewhere between the poles of business and creativity. FAT is increasingly the domain of creative entrepreneurialism, whether it be a landscape design office, a production studio, or a theater prop company, rather than a Wynwood with its galleries of art.
FAT Village lives on the rhythm of the passing trains. Design firms, media production studios, etc. proliferate. Closer to McCraw's original idea, they pay higher rent than artists or galleries, and they give the neighborhood its entrepreneurial spark with much the same determined excitement and visual appeal of the trains. "Trains pass here all the time," he continues. "So you really have a rolling art show eight or nine times a day. There's rarely anything unifying, but when a train goes by all the artists stop." says Ryan Nation, son of the founder of Rolling Stock Gallery, referring to the graffiti on train cars and, more metaphorically, the spirit of the neighborhood as well.
Opposite FAT, on the other side of Flagler Village, a palisade of new construction rises along Federal Highway. Developments by the Related Group and others promise a completely new outside face to Flagler Village along that stretch. The creativity on the west side of the neighborhood is balanced by the large scale development on the east side. Nestled towards the center, is a park, and the beginnings ofthe recently founded Flagler Village Community Garden, the subject of intense neighborhood pride.
FAT Village and the larger Flagler Village will eventually merge into each other out of necessity of space and of diversity, with the distinctions between the two disappearing. All Aboard Florida, the passenger rail service being reintroduced onto the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, has announced that its Fort Lauderdale station will be in Flagler Village, creating a natural neighborhood nexus a block away from FAT's current southern edge. The Wave Streetcar will travel north through the neighborhood, connecting it with Downtown Fort Lauderdale and the New River to the South. A proposed ‘main street' transformation of Broward Boulevard will calm the highway beast of a road that separates Flagler Village from downtown. Beginning with the recently approved extension of the Sistrunk Boulevard name down 6th Street and through Flagler Village, the area might even open to the west, spanning the historical divide between black and white Fort Lauderdale. Finally, more residential and mixed-use development will eventually mean the full realization of Flagler Village as a dense, active, mid-rise urban community in Downtown Fort Lauderdale. Eventually.