Friday, March 28, 2008

Changing Season

My neighbors at the end of my street hitched their Jeep up to their RV the other day and took off north on the Overseas Highway. I've never spoken to them, but their comings and goings mark the season as sure as the swallows at Capistrano, and now that their canal front home is padlocked and shuttered I know the winter season is coming to an end and summer approaches.Summer time in the Keys is the "other" season, not exactly a time of mellow fruitfulness to quote the poet, but a time of higher humidity, longer daylight, and calmer ocean waters, laid flat by an absence of wind, and overpowered by those magnificent Florida mountains known to outsiders as thunderheads. Florida this far south has only two seasons, broadly speaking, dry winters and wet summers. Summers are the time people go North to sweat in sweltering Mid Western brick homes in places where, I'm told temperatures easily top a hundred degrees on airless wet afternoons. Down here by contrast it rarely gets over 95, and the sun though hot and white is reflected by the waters which also produce a lot of the time, the tiniest of breezes. be they ever so small the summer winds are always welcome.This is also the time of year I get home before the sun comes up, bathing my house in golden light, but those days I do stay awake past seven, after a long night at work, I am rewarded by the transformation of gray skies that hold the promise of nothing good, into crisp blues and whites and the deep golden yellow of the dawn.I took this photo a while back at Geiger Key Bridge when I took a dawn deviation on my way home. It put me in mind of summer, with the flat waters, the fresh pre-sunshine air and the hum of swarms of mosquitoes. People will often, in the midst of a litany of things they dislike about Florida (Bless their hearts! Stay away!) include the fanciful notion that this is a climate without seasons. Like I need a snow season, a mud season, a green season and a stinking hot season. Some people do and the subtleties of the sub tropics are too slow and too indistinct for their eyes. Summer is obvious: less traffic on Highway One of course! Pretty soon the Bonneville and I will be rumbling back and forth almost unimpeded. Its not that cars are too fast in winter, its that oncoming traffic is too thick and frequently one has to pass a wedge of half a dozen cars lumped together on the highway, like a gaggle of slow moving geese, so one gives up and waits for summer to ease the congestion. Summer is the time for smooth moving traffic, another plus...This is a picture of Southard Street, home of the future gate, uncharacteristically untraffic'ed in mid winter:

But summer is also the time for hurricanes, those phenomena that stick in the memory of those that have experienced them, and shrugged off by those that have yet to taste the joy of widespread destruction and disruption of our warm, still summer months. Its an axiom of hurricanes that the fewer you have experienced, the less regard you have for them. Many many people gave up on the Keys after eight storms in two consecutive seasons. Another weekend, another hurricane read the wry bumper stickers of the period. Wilma culminated that run with a mass drowning that sank seventy percent of the city and killed no one. It was a time of triumph and total post traumatic stress disorder. We were shattered, collectively, but we kept soldiering on, no riots no looting no fighting. It wasn't all bad though it was pretty awful. Even though residents had to be rescued from their roofs there weren't the dramatic headlines seen in New Orleans. The Keys plugged along. There were casualties though and even today you will see empty houses, shells of their former selves with the telltale dirty bathtub rings around the walls:It looks just a bit down at heel from across the street in New Town. Closer up:And closer yet shows the abandonment and its cause, rising waters, followed by mold and exhaustion, flooding really does suck:I never really appreciated stilt homes till Wilma left my home untouched. There was a move to build stilt homes in New Orleans' Lower Ninth District, but city planners objected saying they look ugly like "olives on sticks." Maybe but they stay dry, like this precariously balanced olive on Flagler Avenue, one of the few stilt homes in the City:Not architecturally striking, but fear of flooding has been a powerful motivator for those that still remember Wilma's waters in the city.

I have come to like living in my little tree house, my windows are on a level with the mature tree branches that surround it, and my decks give me splendid views. And waters will have to rise a long way to reach my bamboo floors...The sun reaches inside easily enough in the early morning and every day I am grateful my little home is still there, the sun shining through my wife's flower arrangement on the dining table:Stoicism is a fine quality in hurricane season , but there are a few months yet before things heat up and I've got some riding to do, on those roads that at last should be emptying out as the weeks go by.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Empty Nest

I have never understood that joke where men talk badly about their wives. The old "ball and chain" jokes... I hear it all the time and I say "he-he" politely when some loser who's lucky anybody cares whether he's alive or dead, bangs on about the trials and tribulations of living with a woman who even cares that he has a pulse. Well, my wife's gone...for a whole week to Santa Cruz California, 3308 miles away, and I am losing the will to live. She took the Maxima to the airport, in order that her convertible can get a check up at Monroe Tire on Big Pine. With the Nissan sitting in Fort Lauderdale for a week and the Sebring getting its engine light checked (what does "check engine light " mean anyway? I'd freak if the Bonneville had one) the space under the house looks awfully empty. She's a teacher, its Spring break and she has friends that need the benefit of her company. I'm hoping she'll be off the wrist brace when she gets back and we can return the Vespa to her workplace in Key West so she can ride it around town. But for the moment that's all the motorized company the Bonneville gets, and upstairs I'm wandering all 800 square feet like the ghost of Hamlet's father, disconsolate and facing the prospect of microwaving all by myself for a week. I plan to be more than usually grumpy. Don't knock self pity until you've tried some, it can be quite bracing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Key Haven

At about Mile Marker Five, the area where the urban agglomeration of Stock Island ends as you leave Key West, when heading north, there lies a gas station, and that would be the Key Haven Shell.
And it is, in all respects unremarkable, not least because it doesn't sell Dion's Fried Chicken, nor is it open 24 hours (though the flag is lit up all night). But it does mark the entrance to one of Key West's supposedly fancier addresses.

This is the neighborhood that lies within 5 minutes of the city but lies apart from it far enough to make it suburban. I can't help but feel that the island's name was some marketing tool used in the 1960's or 70's to sell a "lifestyle" away from the urban decrepitude that was Old Town when the Navy was scaling back and the economy appeared in terminal decline.

There is a large swath of open space across from the gas station, an area known locally as the "Key Haven Truck Stop," a place where yes, truckers stage before entering the city, but also where people park vehicles for sale, boats on trailers and all manner of stuff, much to the annoyance of residents who don't fancy a truck stop as the entrance to their community, even one labelled in jest. Across from the truck stop is more open space, filled with Australian pines, trash, and from time to time the odd motorcycle...it may be cold, 69 degrees in the wake of a cold front, but the Bonneville is running again after a few days set aside for car driving.This stretch of abandoned waterfront overlooking an almost entirely enclosed lagoon has been slated for development, which is hardly surprising. Even less surprising is the fact that people rose up in arms to complain about the plan to build some 43 homes around the seawall.But what surprises me is that this area has been left to its own devices for as long as it has. My wife and I used to meet here occasionally and take Emma for walks, taking advantage of a soon to disappear open space. Perhaps not, at least not for a while, will it disappear. So far so good, with no signs yet of construction.

Key Haven itself is a curious community, lacking in amenity, devoid of personality and neither sparkling with architectural gems nor flourishing with botanical abundance. Its just kind of flat, and many of the houses lack any kind of tropical flair:I think its relative old age (50 perhaps?) gives it a rather dated feel, like some of those Miami suburbs built outside downtown as experiments in urban planning with an emphasis on concrete order and cement block bungalows.It's not a community that invites exploration and side walks are not seen in abundance, though there are elderly, peeling bicycle lanes painted on the main roadways, which surprised me:The island reminded me of nothing quite so much as Grand Cayman, flat and subdued and begging a reason for a second visit. The fact is much of Key Haven is treated as a public parking lot for quasi abandoned boats, trailers and trucks: And when I stopped to photograph this alluring display of urban decay I attracted the irate attention of a nearby homeowner who came out and stood, silent but belligerent in the street while I turned out in the dead end, took a picture... ...and came back out past him. He stepped back as I smiled breezily and rode by. The last I saw in my mirror he turned around and stumped back indoors as I disappeared out of his street. I guess he has attracted some unwanted attention for his sprawling public abandoned trailer lot...and must have wondered if I were documenting his lack of public spiritedness for some nefarious purpose. No such luck, I'm just a a wanderer with a camera.

Part of my actual self imposed mission, far from working as an outrider for Code Enforcement, was to seek out the home advertised on the real estate flyer that landed in my mailbox recently. I found it easily enough and it was as promoted, brand new looking in "move in" condition. I liked its multitude of sloping metal roofs:And it sits on just one of several crowded canal front streets that eschew the eminently sensible notion of raising your precious home on flood-proof stilts. Which is not to say new homes aren't sprouting on Key Haven bringing with them the architectural motifs of McMansions from Up North.I'm sure you can find any number of homes like these huddled round golf courses from Pensacola to Port Saint Lucie but they have always struck me as somewhat unsuitable for tropical construction. The lovely terracotta tile Mediterranean roofs for a start are just perfect for hurricane force winds to lift up and peel off in one hundred mile-per-hour winds. Steel roofs make sense. Then I wonder how you attach hurricane shutters to their abundance of nooks and crannies and half hidden windows...Fortunately there are a few quirky homeowners even in Key Haven and this one I liked with its absurdist airplane parts front gate (Beware of the Dog and No Trespassing...just to add a touch of class) and this grotesque mishmash gateway to purgatory, begging for a touch of varnish and a pet for the guardian lions:Key Haven enjoys the mixed benefits of canal frontage ,open water and easy access to the city, but its not a place that invites serene reflection, even in its most open viewpoints:And the tiny urban park has a most unfriendly sign announcing it's for Members Only. As if this might be just the sort of magnet to attract hosts of undesirables, people just like me, bikers, or worse, if the gate wasn't posted Keep Out!Key Haven doesn't speak to me, doesn't make me wish I lived in a low lying easily flooded home, right under the flight path of Navy jets just five miles from the fleshpots of Key West. It does have a couple of nice curves on the main road through the community which is nice,but not enough to make me pine for the delights of this funky little neighborhood. I doubt they will miss me, or my motorcycle any more than I shall miss them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

House For Sale- Cheap!

I crawled out of bed bleary eyed at what would be lunchtime for most people and put the kettle on. The mail arrives around one in the afternoon and as a concession to my wife, the money manager, I like to get the mail and sort it all out for her. Well today I got this piece of chum from some idiot who apparently is under employed and anxious:

I am freaked out, I admit it, by the credit crunch and repossessions that so far have impacted mostly the very weakest borrowers (racial minorities in large measure who rarely get headline coverage). If you believe we are almost out of the worst of it I will have to respectfully disagree and meanwhile I am left to wonder, alone, just how my generation will cope with the coming melt down. Boomers have never had to Dig for Victory.

Then I flipped the card and felt like I could breathe again:

2500 square feet (240 square meters) is a big home, though I suspect "living space" will include some pleasant though not weather proof covered deck areas. Nevertheless by North American suburban standards its a respectable home and Key Haven is at Mile Marker 5, close to Key West and though it is an upper class address it is plagued by Navy jet noise. The sound of jets appeals to some as the sound of freedom and to others it resembles the four horsemen of the Apocalypse just dropping by for a visit. Take your pick.

It just strikes me as being part of the Keys real estate madness when cards drop in your mailbox advertising multi million dollar homes Reduced! as though anyone might be tempted into spending more than a million (be they ever so feeble) dollars on an impulse purchase... But there again anyone who can be induced to drop that kind of money on a postcard whim won't need to borrow from main street banks which is lucky as loans aren't forthcoming.

Which leads us in circular fashion back to the beginning- Realtors are bored and desperate and Keys homeowners haven't yet realised that the prices of two years ago are far, far beyond values today. It will be time for us to hunker down for a different kind of storm when these second-home owners are hurting so badly that houses in Paradise are truly reduced to feed credit flames stoked Up North . Good luck to all.

Eco Discovery Center

Everything is Green or Eco that is good these days, for we have discovered the benefit of paying attention instead of simply trampling stuff. I was amazed just the other day to see a waste bin show up in Police Dispatch with the word Recycling stenciled on the side. Shortly thereafter an explanatory note was added advising us that this was only for non-sensitive paper recycling so I reluctantly removed my (clean) yogurt container from the symbol of the Brave New World. At home recycling comes in two bins- paper and containers. The City has a bit more catching up to do. Down on the waterfront at Truman Annex there lie a couple of squat cement buildings, close to the gorgeous turquoise waters of Key West's inner harbor. These buildings are harbingers of the City's future, not least because they are growing sod on the roof to reduce cooling costs:It's going to be a while before we see a lawn on the flat roof of the Police Station, but the Dr Nancy Foster Eco Discovery Center is new and bringing innovation slowly with it. This is the headquarters of the National Marine Sanctuary in the Lower Keys, and there are 33 new acres of land to be developed by Key West around here now that the Navy has handed the waterfront over to civilian use. The Marine Sanctuary in the Keys is easily accessible to members of the public for the waters are protected and shallow and these islands are littered with boats for rent to go out and enjoy them. From cruise ships on down:The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the grandly named Federal agency works with the State of Florida to protect these waters with their boats:
and with their markers and their buoys:My buddy Robert who has lived in the Keys since 1976 moved from working as a commercial lobsterman to become the waterborne educator of the sanctuary users. His job is to welcome boaters to the sanctuary and then educate them how not to wreck it:The drive to educate is what got the Eco Discovery Center built and a very modern building it is too, inside as well as out:Admission is free, the air conditioning is cold and there is even a movie theater in here, so there are lots of reasons on the face of it to pay this place a visit. However, as a friend of mine said to me, "You need to be prepared to spend a lot of time in there, there's tons to read!" and its not all about the water:The Center really pulls all the habitats together into one web of life. Its not just a matter of not stepping on the hard pressed corals on our reefs, its also a matter of not throwing out trash, not interfering with the life cycles of birds and fish and reptiles; it is all, in short, connected. A point made clear in the movie theater, a painless way to explore the various sticky, buggy environments in the Florida Keys, as seen through the wide eyes of a visitor to the Marine Sanctuary. The movie shows us a child's eye view of the wonders of mangroves and fish habitats in the sanctuary:There are dioramas explaining the world of the animals underwater:And above the waters, in the dry land hammocks:And on the beaches:For a professional diver and educator like Robert the submersible exhibit holds a special place in his heart:I like visiting the Eco Discovery Center, not because I feel the need to discover, or reaffirm my desire to be polite to the planet I call home, but because I like reminding myself, during the winter months how much I am going to enjoy immersing myself in the mysterious waters that surround my island home. And just when they seem to be a little less mysterious than usual a weird event pops into the headlines. Like the visitor from Up North killed by a flying ray that broke her neck when it hit her sitting in the bow of her boat slicing through the water at 25 miles per hour... a ray like this one possibly:I guess it must be a fair representation of a ray but it has those big old Bambi eyes staring down from the ceiling...



I couldn't leave the center without a quick perusal of my favorite habitat, those spindly pine trees that dot the islands. These would be real pines, the ones that ooze sap and carry that particular scent with them, of Mediterranean forests and dry hot summer afternoons.No mention here of Casuarina trees. This building is at the heart of the drive to re-vegetate the Keys with native plants and the Pines of Fort Zachary for instance wouldn't be something I'd bring up with Robert next time we're out for dinner at El Siboney...
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Coincidentally there is an all day meeting scheduled in Key Colony Beach today where sanctuary officials are going to meet and discuss how best they can protect the natural resources of the sanctuary into the future. There are concerns that the reefs are dying at an exponential rate, lobster populations are shrinking and something, they say needs to be done. Saving Paradise one coral, one lobster, one fish at a time, perhaps.