Beneath its theme-park mentality, Orlando’s heart beats bohemian.
Bohemia flows outside the mountains of mainstream culture, an artistic path paved by 1950s libertines. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac defined the movement in his 1951 novel On the Road, which resonates today with those who crave more than chain-store vanilla from their everyday and getaway experiences.
I went hunting for it in what seemed the most unlikely of places: Orlando, a city famous for icons adored en masse and planned streetscapes. But away from International Drive, I discovered a vibrant arts scene in independent theaters, a used record store, coffee shops and bars vibrating with local tunes.
In homage to the writer, I visited his former home in College Park, now one of Orlando’s “it” neighborhoods. On a narrow street beneath a sprawling live oak, Kerouac lived briefly with his mother while banging out The Dharma Bums, a follow-up to On the Road. The modest wood-frame home, now called the Kerouac House, has been remodeled as a residence for artists and an occasional venue for readings.
Film, too, rolls through Orlando’s counterculture, and my favorite cinematic hangout is Stardust Video & Coffee near Winter Park. Although unimpressive from the outside, you can spend an afternoon sipping a café mocha and wandering the maze of cult films, classics, foreign flicks and documentaries.
In nearby Maitland, I dropped into the independent movie theater, the Enzian, home of the acclaimed Florida Film Festival. I watched Little Miss Sunshine over a beer and delicious, made-from-scratch menu items.
Jazz has sounded in the background of bohemia since the music style took a more improvisational, free form in the 1940s and ’50s. Amid downtown Orlando’strendy bars and discos, you can still find modern jazz in Tanqueray’s Bar & Grille, a basement club on Orange Avenue.
Steps away, the Mad Cow Theatre hosts independent plays. And at Natura Café, organic coffee, whole-leaf teas, munchies and sweets share the spotlight with open-mic poets, acoustic musicians and Buddhist speakers.