COVER STORY

QUEEN of the Underground

Christy Frazier makes your life cooler and you don’t even know it … or her

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The murals should have been the giveaway that I had found the place, yet still I drove up and down North Liberty Street a few times looking for the numbers Christy Frazier had provided: 2336 Liberty St. It’s noon on an early July Saturday and the area is a baking ghost town. My car is sticking to the pavement when I spot two bicyclists sneaking under a half-open garage door, not dissimilar to any of the other 50-odd garage doors that line the abandoned street. The street-facing façade of this building is no different from the rest, but the south-facing mural, a collection of oversized figures comingling with bas relief mirror sculptures that frame doors and loading docks, is the tell that this is the Phoenix Arts District and in one of these warehouses is Christy Frazier, the mastermind behind the pocket-sized cultural renaissance brewing in the long-forgotten warehouse corridor that runs up North Liberty Street, between Springfield and the MLK Jr. Parkway.

The sneaky cyclists were part of a group Frazier was hosting that boiling afternoon. She took the small group on a tour through the warehouse, while mobile, industrial fans labored loudly to barely stir the heavy air. Frazier managed to remain impeccably coiffed, as if unaffected by the stagnant heat, and kept a tour pace that left some of the more languid constantly catching up. Even as perspiration rested on her upper lip, her speech was measured and unforced over the din of the fans. Fob in hand, automatic garage doors opened before her and closed behind her as if at her whim. She bought 2336 N. Liberty St. more than a year ago and shortly thereafter acquired the two adjacent warehouses, approximately 100,000 square feet of combined space. The 2336 property is the furthest along in its rebirth. Art hangs from the walls and the space includes a finished, mercifully air-conditioned studio/office that is practically Frazier’s second home. In a sitting area equipped with cozy couches and a TV, Frazier’s eight-year-old daughter unwinds after school while her mother works.

This is the center of the burgeoning Phoenix Arts District. Word of Frazier’s aspirations for the area has started to spread around town. Inside different areas of the warehouse, you’ll find working spaces for artists like Shaun Thurston, Matthew Abercrombie, and other talented souls. If all goes according to plan, it will someday also house an accredited university-level art school that rivals the Parsons School of Design and the Savannah College of Art and Design, the types of schools that Frazier may have wanted to attend.
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Christy Frazier was born and bred in Mandarin. Ever polite talking about her background, she’s also quite adept at dodging any and all follow-up questions about her childhood. In a later conversation, she admits to being a shy and private child, and that the latter quality is still very much part of her makeup.

She had her heart set on Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, but her father made her attend Stanton College Preparatory School. “What are you going to do with art?” was his explanation. Frazier says that question was one of the motivators that drove her to open the Art Bar on King Street. For a long time, it seems that Frazier’s modus operandi was, “I’ll show you!”

She graduated early from Stanton Prep, not as a prodigy, but as a young mother. Without doubt or hesitation, she embraced motherhood. For three years, she worked as a sales secretary, saving money for a down payment and securing the job stability that enabled her to qualify for a city program assisting first-time homeowners. Instead of buying a single-occupancy home, she bought a house subdivided into four apartments on Herschel Street in Riverside. She and her daughter moved into the main part of the dwelling and the other apartments immediately began to generate income for their small family.

“That was the beginning of my power tool collection,” Frazier says. As tenants cycled through, she would personally renovate the apartments. “This was before the Internet, before HGTV, before YouTube. I was learning to do repairs and projects from books.” By the time she turned 30, Frazier says, she had painted and redone more floors than most men will in a lifetime. With each upgrade to the apartments, she upgraded her income; the savings from that eventually became mustard seed money for Art Bar.

“I love to dance and I wanted a place to go to in the neighborhood on the rare occasion that I could secure a babysitter. There was nowhere to go, so I decided to open a place,” Frazier says. She was unsure about how she was going to do it, considering she had barely any capital and zero experience, but she crafted a business plan nonetheless and shopped it around to a few banks. The rejection was expected but not deterring. “In my head, I knew that if I opened a place, it had to work.”

“Then in 2002, my friend, Rick, saw a classified [ad] in the paper of some guy selling a bar for $30,000. It was just for the business, not the building. I managed to scrounge up $5,000 from my savings and from a small loan and I convinced the guy to let me make payments on the balance.

“Mind you, this was not the King Street we have today, it was sketchy and the bar was a dive. I signed the paperwork and opened a week later, after convincing my friends to come help paint and decorate.”

Frazier remembers asking the prostitutes who earned their living strolling the sidewalk in front of her new business to please move one block up. “I told them that they were welcome to make money any way they saw fit, but that this was my block now,” Frazier says of the stand-alone building which today houses Jacksonville Magazine.

Art Bar became the de facto hub for Douglas Anderson students, graffiti artists, skaters and others with subversive outlooks. “Art Bar was always a reunion, especially for DA kids,” says Frazier’s longtime friend Shaun Thurston. “You could go anywhere in the world and when you got back for the holidays, you didn’t even have to call anyone, you just had to go down to Art Bar.

“Everyone was pissed [when Art Bar closed] because we felt like Big Business was shutting us all down.”

“Art Bar lasted six years, until the bank across the street bought the building and wanted me out because I had purchased a liquor license and they didn’t want that in the neighborhood,” Frazier says. First Guarantee Bank showed up to the zoning hearings in 2007 and informed Frazier that she would have to vacate the building at the end of her lease. The bank ultimately wrote the loans for her next endeavor, The Pearl, and her next liquor license. It did not end well.

This was the height of the unscrupulous, though legal, bank practices that were a major contributor to the bottom falling out of the housing market in 2008, and the ensuing banking collapse and Great Recession. Frazier among the many who became collateral damages for the banks. She lost the business, and with it her sole source of income, and had a million dollars’ worth of loans attached to her home. She says the bank made its move without even checking her credit.

The Florida Office of Financial Regulation ended up closing the bank. Today Frazier recalls the episode as if she vowed at the time that this would be the last time anyone would ever take advantage of her.

Pushed out of her business and deeply in debt, the young entrepreneur nevertheless needed to provide for herself and her daughter. Luckily, The Pearl was an immediate success. More a nightclub than a bar, The Pearl was, as Frazier calls it, her ‘grown-up bar.’ It had a light-up dance floor, but the venue was designed and decorated for slightly older patrons. It was the place that Frazier wanted to have at that point in her life. Artist Matthew Abercrombie, who had been a fan of Art Bar, transitioned with Frazier to The Pearl. He says that Frazier’s personality “comes out through her venues.”

“As the bars changed and grew, so did she; so did we all. For her, it’s always been about curating good spaces and quality work.”

Piggybacking on the success of The Pearl, Frazier opened Birdies in 2009. Early on, Birdies was also successful. Since opening Art Bar in 2002, there’s been only one month when Frazier did not have a bar in operation.

In 2010, Frazier added gallery owner to her cultural CV when she and visual artist Tom Pennington opened the VERSUS Gallery in Riverside. By the time it closed in 2012, they had hosted duo and solo shows by hip local artists including Mark George and R. Land, Shaun Thurston and Squid Dust, and Lee Harvey.

“The best part of that experience with Tom: He is a total visionary,” says Frazier. “I’m not sure which was my favorite part—receiving the work…that always felt like Christmas, hanging it, or hosting the reception. All in all, it was just fun.”

The Pearl eventually closed in 2012, mostly because Frazier had a second daughter in 2009 and wanted to spend more time being a mother than a bar owner. Birdies remains a favorite local watering hole, though now, for the most part, Frazier has stepped away from the day-to-day operation as she focuses on different future endeavors.

When she speaks of her past, present and future, it’s obvious that, like Abercrombie says, all Frazier’s endeavors have been a living representation of who she is at the time. She talks of Art Bar as it were the first time she fell in love. Maturity and business prowess come through when she speaks about The Pearl. There’s a genuine comfort in her demeanor when she chats about Birdies. Now a time-tested entrepreneur with several successes under her belt, she’s found a new source of excitement in the Phoenix Arts District and the art school that she dreams of opening.
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We meet for a second time at Kaika Teppanyaki in Five Points. It’s lunchtime and the place is fairly empty, even for a Tuesday. I ask if this is one of her favorite places. She answers that she likes it, but that she patronizes it more out of a desire to see it remain in business. As ever, my attempts to gain insight into her personal life, both past and present, prove somewhat futile, as Frazier remains vague about her personal life and history, deftly maneuvering the conversation back to the Phoenix Arts District. She is not guarded, but she is on guard.

Aislynn Thomas-McDonald, a friend of Frazier’s and her one-time partner in the initial development of the warehouses that would become the Phoenix Arts District, offers an explanation. “She is a very private person and that is often misunderstood,” says Thomas-McDonald. “She’s a unicorn that stands out among the herd of horses.” 

Thomas-McDonald, an attorney, was integral in facilitating the purchase of the warehouses, offering everything from legal advice and contract execution to capital funding. “We brainstormed together about our desire to initiate a revitalization in the area.” As the two intended, once the purchase stabilized, Thomas-McDonald exited, confident that Frazier would see things through to success. “Christy gives so much of herself to her projects. She lived in those warehouses and actually breathed life into them,” Thomas-McDonald says.

Over edamame and roti, Frazier shares news that she has partnered with the Jacksonville Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ Emerging Design Professionals to announce a design competition for Phoenix Arts District. Frazier will select the three finalists; the winning designer will receive a $10,000 award, which will come from sponsors. She sees this competition as a significant move in the right direction. Giddy, she fidgets with excitement as she bounces between the details of the building and competition, the school and its possibilities. Frazier references the school repeatedly, without naming it. She hasn’t quite settled on a name just yet.

A few indirect personal questions are met with kind, yet terse responses. Frazier is obviously comfortable, eloquent even, discussing her work, but her shoulders drop when she’s asked to turn the looking glass inward. “I stopped doing interviews a decade ago because words always seemed to be misconstrued,” Frazier says. Still, she recognizes that a part of the success of the Phoenix Arts District and the school it will one day house hinges on her ability to spread the word, even if it means opening herself up to strangers.

“I was a lot more stubborn 15 to 20 years ago. I’ve learned there is a lot more peace in taking the path of least resistance,” Frazier says. “I’m not going to force anything anymore. At the end, what is the cost, what price did I pay? Things are going to happen slowly if they need to. It’s easier for me to slow down because I don’t have anything to prove.”

Frazier says that she is not interested in running the school, only opening it. Once it’s open, she just wants to take classes to learn how to blow glass. Frazier’s current works are mixed-media mosaics, all of which deal in some form with light and reflection. Her Phoenix Arts District air-conditioned workspace has stacks of mirrors of different shapes and sizes. She hand-cuts shapes and arranges the mosaics to tell stories. Like many artists, she is cryptic when discussing her work’s meaning and purpose. She shares that the bas relief mirror mosaic on the side of 2336 Liberty St. is called The Icenado, as in tornado, and that all winter long, the reflection set the alley on fire. “We would sit there and watch the sun track along the grass and self-combusting. We’d watch it for a few minutes and then put it out, only to have it happen again five minutes later,” Frazier says.

“She’s an artist first and foremost,” Thurston says. “She recognizes what it takes to run a business and she’s got the discipline to see it through. She’s content to be behind the scenes, but if she says there is going to be a school, there will be a school.”

In spite of her reticence to talk about her private life, throughout our conversations, Frazier is candid and courteous, even vulnerable at times. She has been, and still is, the owner of some of Jacksonville’s most iconic bars of the last two decades, yet she carries no air of a cooler-than-thou scenester or scene creator. She humbly admits that the Phoenix Arts District is like no other project she has taken on and that the learning curve is daunting. She also says she is willing to see it grow organically; there is no firm timeline, no overwhelming, self-imposed pressure.

Matthew Abercrombie calls her “the Godmother” and says that Frazier is one of the reasons Jacksonville’s arts culture still thrives. “There is a lot of Jacksonville that really appreciates her hard work and success without really knowing it.”

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