Sunday, November 30, 2008

Harris School

It sits like a mausoleum on the 800 block of Southard Street, but when it was built it was modern and solid and attractive enough to merit being publicized. This postcard which I found on the Key West Travel Guide web page shows the Harris School as it was around the time it was built in 1909.

And this is how it looks today from the south side:On the north side the front portico still looks the same as it did in the postcard, but the passage of time has given some trees a chance to sprout:
The passage of time may explain the apparent passive aggressive nature of the handicapped parking space. Give it enough time and the tree won't leave enough space even for a bicycle to park:The Harris School started out in life as the equivalent of a high school I believe and ended it's educational career as an elementary school in 1980. Late enough to make mention of skateboarding which was quite popular back then as I recall.The school building used to be surrounded by other cement structures of a 1950's or 60's style and they included the MARC house an acronym that has a rather dated flavor to it: Monroe Association for Retarded Citizens. They used to have splendid plant sales in back and I recall cycling Carstens Lane in the rear of the property and seeing rows of plants filling the back of the building. These days the land around the Harris School has been razed: Somewhere over in the right side of the photograph there was also a culinary school and we used to get cheap high quality meals there, as guinea pigs for the high school chefs. It was a loss when they closed, and then there was the promise that the culinary school might re-open in the Harris building. That clearly didn't happen:There were plans aired to hand the building over to a foundation for use as an "artist's colony" in the heart of the city but negotiations seemed to fall apart between Rodel and the school district. So the building languishes and sits there as sturdy as ever:
The walls look like they're made of stone are actually a kind of stippled cement. I've seen similar at the school district's facilities building on United Street. But for all it's solid Victorian air Harris School is sad and abandoned:
When negotiations were at their height a couple of years ago people standing on the sidelines expressed incredulous horror at the thought of the school being knocked down, as it needs huge amounts of work to be brought up to code and made usable. With the economy wobbling the way it is right now I wonder what possible use they can find for the pile.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

700 Fleming

The library on Fleming Street boasts the title of oldest public library in Florida, and it has to be one of the prettier ones. It's yet one more pink building surrounded by trees taking up much of a city block.Modern libraries are so much more than simply book depositories it's hard to know how librarians manage their roles in society. The library in Key West, as it is so many towns is a refuge for people with no place to go, and as such it has become a sort of drop-in center for the dispossessed. It has computers to give everyone a chance to glean what they need from the Web:The library is still mostly about books and reading, so we of course enjoy lots of heavily loaded shelves along with perhaps a seasonal theme:But we have electronics to feed as well and the library is good place to stop by for a DVD, or if you are old fashioned they still have some video tapes:They cater to youngsters and offer a room for their use, next to the meeting room at that end of the building which offers a space for lectures and movies and the like:Despite the modern demand for electronic gadgetry the library holds firm on the no cell phone rule, pushing patrons out into the cold if they have to yell into the box in public:
Libraries have come under fire for opening up the world of forbidden knowledge over the years. I find it as abhorrent as I do bizarre that there are people out there who think books should be banned, but when the pressure is on, our libraries have been quite astonishingly uncompromising on that too lately.The city-county library system in Monroe County has the usual problem facing public services in a county that is a hundred miles long and a mile wide in that there have to be lots of branches up and down the islands. I have used the Marathon, Big Pine and Key West libraries as well as the library at the Florida Keys Community College and found them all to be excellent refuges. And despite the usual lack of funds for a service that could improve the community immeasurably they do well with what they have.I guess it is helpful for me that I work nights in that the hours do tend to serve the unemployed but library closings seem inevitable in our newly impoverished world.In a city filled with retirees in winter the library is a hive of reading activities:Some of my younger colleagues look at me in horror when I talk about books. "I don't read!" Belen announced proudly. So I looked at her and said: "The only difference between you and a dog is that the dog can't read!" which isn't original but she was annoyed enough to bring a book to work, on the Holocaust of all things. Illiteracy is something that is still often considered shameful but there's enough of it around that there are ads for volunteer reading coaches posted at the library bulletin board.The library has always been a mark of civilization in a community and the fact that Key West's goes back in various guises at this location to the 19th century is a reminder that this was once Florida's biggest city. It seems odd nowadays to imagine that little Key West was the most salubrious town in a state plagued by heat, humidity, insects and illness. Key West was on the main shipping routes from the Gulf of Mexico and there was money to spare for a little culture in the town.When I lived on the margins in Key West getting a library card was the ticket to comfortable living afloat. A library card offered free entertainment in a town that lacked NPR on the radio and that lost its free TV with the departure of the translator antennae up and down the Keys. I presented my card one day to withdraw a book and the librarian checked the address as they do. "700 Sailboat Lane?" I nodded holding my breath. " Hmm," she said looking dubious. "This sounds like a Cheryl live aboard special." I nodded acknowledging my address as the approximate location of the sailing club on Garrison Bight. I owed Cheryl a lot for her help and now she's died I can confess she weaseled me a library card at a most opportune time. She made the library a shore base for a lot of transient sailor and I think of her every time I visit.The library is a handy place to park but overstaying one's welcome isn't a good idea. Its a county facility and there is usually a County Deputy hanging around ready to get scofflaws towed. On the other hand there is a rather decent little pocket garden next to the library which is a good place to hang when you do find somewhere to park:The homeless population certainly seems to have shrunk this year. The garden was almost unoccupied much to my surprise:How old fashioned.Not an electron in sight. We cannot however leave the library and this inadequate tour without a reminder that this is Key West, land of the million signs:The notion that coughs and sneezes spread diseases seems rather quaint sixty years after the end of World War Two and it's public service announcements ("Careless Talk Costs Lives"). Someone at some point thought chickens were a public health threat and put up a sign to that effect. There are people who think chickens are a threat. Some controversies never die and happily the library will be there to keep us informed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

800 Johnson Lane

The eight hundred block of Johnson Lane parallels Truman Avenue north of Windsor Lane. It's one of those impossibly narrow Key West streets never designed for modern vehicles:And i exemplifies the prettiness Key West is unique for in cities across North America. the fact is, its hard sometimes to remember that not everywhere is like this, narrow impractical and varied. The details make the lane worth noting: The contrasts are vivid. On one side of the lane there is this brand new development, of several units inside the refurbished building. My wife dragged me in for a quick look during an open house last year. Boy, were we shocked when the agent revealed an asking price of one and a half million US dollars. They appear to be sold, too:And directly opposite we have this, on a more human scale altogether:Johnson Lane continues the contrasting themes as it goes. Trim little Conch cottages:And not one but two outdoor toilets awaiting removal. I figured apicture of one would be sufficient to make the point:Houses awaiting the loving touch:Parked next to renovations exhibiting all the refinements money can buy: off street parking......and carefully masked protuberances so vital to comfortable living but so visible in a crass way, normally. Not here:Older key West:And older Key West with a lick of pastel paint:Off street parking is always valuable as you can tell from the narrow confines of a street like this. But what price an elderly tree like this?

The surroundings, be they ever so beautiful can't seem to dispel the inherent testiness of close living. This time with a new twist, a veiled threat perhaps I hadn't seen before in a Keep Out sign. Perhaps an ironic sense of humor I'd like to think:

And if you need it illustrated, life in old town Key West is life lived at close quarters.Imagine your regular American suburban lot then check out these offsets. Imagine washing up the dishes at the kitchen sink and staring out the window at your neighbor perhaps three feet away...

And yet for the lucky ones, there is room enough to keep a boat. Personally I like having a dock in my suburban backyard, with a boat in the water for the summer months (mine is on its trailer now as the waters are decidedly cold):

And having thus reached the other end of the block we find ourselves looking back at the afternoon sun that sets off contrasting shades under the palms:

Johnson Lane was a peaceful place in the late afternoon but I wasn't completely alone, a silent shadow whisked by:

And the inevitable dog walker crossed the end of the lane on a colorful stretch of Windsor:

All we needed was the hum of bees to complete the illusion of summer in November, but we're told even bees are in short supply as our world continues to change precipitously, and disastrously, around us. Not Old Town Key West, that stays the same we hope with just minor variations. Living history.