Free downtown arts events fit a college student’s budget for fun

Friday night has rolled around again, and you are faced with the same old problem. You want to go out for the evening, but you have very little money to spare. Finding affordable entertainment on a college student’s budget can be a challenge. Finding something to do that isn’t the same old thing can be even more so. Fortunately, the arts community of Fort Myers banded together with downtown businesses fi ve years ago to create the monthly Art and Music Walks. The entertainment is free, and the food and drinks are cheap. Fort Myers’ downtown cultural district is compact, with most things happening in a four-square-block area. It’s easy to get around to all the entertainment, even in high heels.
Bryelle Dafeldecker, a 2013 Florida Gulf Coast University graduate, said, “I think it’s a really fun environment. There’s a bunch of people always roaming the streets. There’s just a lot going on in different locations, and you can just hop around to different places throughout the night and just see what each place has to offer.”
The epicenter of the action is the Patio de Leon, a historic public walking plaza located at the southwest corner of First and Hendry streets. The open, brickpaved space at the center of the block is surrounded by several restaurants and bars that feature specials during Art and Music Walks, including Top of the Town, Los Cabos Cantina, Space 39 Art Bar, Downtown House of Pizza and Tac-o-Rama. The rockabilly band Memphis ’56 plays in the plaza from 7 to 9 p.m. for each event. About the time the roots rock show comes to an end, the plaza begins to echo with the sound of blues bands in Space 39 and folkrock from the Top of the Town. Los Cabos features a DJ for its latenight party that starts at 10 p.m. Street musicians who play for tips also congregate at the entrances to the plaza, as well as along First Street, so with such a diverse musical smorgasbord, if you don’t hear your kind of tunes at fi rst, keep walking and follow your ears. You will likely fi nd something to suit your musical tastes soon. Many of the musicians are your fellow college students.
“Well, sometimes I play acoustic for tips, and it’s a fun thing to do in Fort Myers,” said Michael Messina, an FGCU junior majoring in psychology. The musicians who provide you with entertainment do rely upon your generosity in return, so please be kind and scrape together some spare change to share with them. Applause feeds musicians souls’ but not their bellies.
Delicious food at reasonable prices abounds. Slices start at just $2.50 at the Downtown House of Pizza, and Tac-o-Rama offers $2 tacos. People with big appetites will want to try the huge Cuban sandwich for $6 at April’s Pie Company on First Street. For an elegant date that won’t bust a college student’s wallet, sit down at the French Connection Café, also on First Street. Dinner crepes run two for $10.50 and come with a side garnish of fresh fruit so large you won’t have to order a salad. As a bonus to the date, the French Connection also features musical acts on its small stage. For the truly broke student, some restaurants offer free food samples, and art galleries often feature openings with refreshment tables.
Many bars offer drink specials as well, so keep a watch for the advertising signboards on the sidewalks. There is one caution to keep in mind, though. You may see people walking around in the plaza and on the streets with alcoholic beverages in hand, but this is illegal. The police have started handing out citations. Be sure to stay inside the boundaries of the sidewalk cafes’ business spaces, and don’t walk past the warning signs with a drink in hand. Downtown seems otherwise safe during Art and Music Walks; the police presence does have its upside. Just practice the same precautions you might at a suburban shopping mall, such as locking your car doors and putting valuables out of sight. Free parking is easiest to fi nd on the perimeter of downtown, such as at Centennial Park at U.S. 41. If you have a spare $5, you can park closer in one of the downtown parking garages.
The new Bootlegger’s Alley Art Gallery comes into existence just twice a month at these events, tucked in a narrow passage accessed from the Patio de Leon. Although festively lit with strings of lights overhead, the gallery seems a little like walking into a haunted house, particularly with the edgy gothic and graphic novel themes explored by the young artists.
In Bootlegger’s Alley, professional comic book artist Vanassa Banky-Fareno said she encourages students to partake of the downtown arts events: “Well, fi rst off, staying on campus is very boring. I actually, for a brief time, was at FGCU. But, I will tell you downtown is full of rich culture and people, and you’ll meet a lot of interesting people by coming down to events like Art Walk, as well as seeing lots of different cultures coming together and producing amazing pieces of artwork and music and just hanging out, and it’s a good time.”
You never know what you might see at one of these events. People in pirate and medieval costumes walk around just to be seen. One man comes to every event dressed as Jesus. A pantomime performer poses as a human statue. The streets and plaza often look like a dog show with all the pooches that accompany their owners to the events. Sometimes, Happy the skateboarding goat makes an appearance. The dogs go nuts when they see Happy performing her talent.
“Just come out and explore the culture that Fort Myers has,” said Christian Davis, an artist and a 2009 graduate of FGCU. “There are very few nights where all these people get together and really show what they have and to take advantage of it … it’s always a blast.”
The atmosphere of the events is always fun and dress is anywhere from casual to “see and be seen.” People wear anything from t-shirts and jeans to outfi ts that make them look like they stepped off a fashion show runway. So if you are looking for something new to do, come and add your own part to the show at the downtown Art and Music Walks.