Monday, February 11, 2008

Stock Island

Cruising around the southern half of Stock Island I was put in mind of an incident more than 20 years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, California. It happened that health officials decided to shut down a farm worker's camp located along the Pajaro River Valley. The Monterey County Authorities decided the housing was so substandard the workers were at risk, and I believe the owner may have spent some time behind bars as a result on their investigation. That incident sparked a massive debate among humanitarians of all stripes arguing over whether it was preferrable to allow the field workers to remain housed in the camp while they completed the season, or to throw them and their families out into an overcrowded housing market. The authorities were firm; the camp structures were dangerous and uninhabitable. The farm workers took to cardboard boxes and bushes along the river levee. A hell of a solution.There are better and worse examples of housing on Stock Island but this place houses many of the lower paid people who keep Key West's economy functioning. During the recent development boom in south Florida Stock Island was bought up in large chunks by people with elaborate plans for the future and some of those plans are starting to see the light of day.Fancy new boat slips are first up and former shrimp docks are being razed to make way for the fresh new water playgrounds. The shrimp boats have moved across the water to Safe Harbor and their future there seems assured by a local who has set up a permanent home for them. However this section of Shrimp Road has been bulldozed and cleaned up in preparation reportedly for a hotel and upscale appurtenances, while a few small workshops are still holding onto their places in the sun. This one was featured in a recent Citizen article:And this boat building yard seems to be doing well. Their multihulls are well known in the world of sailing:Behind Multihull Technologies lies the last haul out facility which has not yet announced plans to close and be transformed into luxury waterfront housing. I used to know it as the 3-D boatyard, and it's still moving boats around in the slings we boaters know and dread:All skippers hate seeing their cherished vessels dragged around the yard like a bag of cement but these Travelifts are critical for the future of boating in Key West. If you can't lift boats out of the water from time to time you can't do basic maintenance. The Travelift costs better than a quarter million dollars an investment that needs a long future to pay itself off. Boating, traditionally of the commercial sort, but more recently pleasure boating, has kept Stock island in the marine business for a very long time:Originally this was the island where Key West kept its livestock, and in servicing the needs of what was Florida's largest city Stock Island adopted its role of satellite to its more famous and more polished neighbor to the south. Now it appears to be growing into its own upscale destination, for good or ill. Peninsular Boatyard used to offer haul outs, marine services, a shop and liveaboard slips as well as a dinghy dock for people living out at anchor, in a dusty working class environment. The plan is for these monstrous new tin sheds to house the runabouts of the new class of Stock Island resident projected to take an interest in this freshly minted community:Granted, the state of dilapidation on Stock Island makes it hard to defend the status quo:
But no one said commercial fishing has to be tidy. It's a disorganized way to make a living, sudden wealth with a good catch, back breaking labor relieved by plentiful alcohol, and its adherents aren't required to have strong formal educations. All of which combines to produce an industry that exists in a state of mostly benign chaos:Fishermen, if they have to be lumped together, could be defined as old fashioned rugged individualists, self reliant businessmen of the old school who would rather spend time of their choosing, making traps and sorting nets in the discomfort of a boatyard rather than taking orders from a chain of command in a more organized workplace:Then there are the stores on Stock Island that keep this tenuous lifestyle supplied. On Highway One there is a Burger King, a liquor store, a minimart, a dollar store, a gas station, a Mexican restaurant and so forth. Here's Highway One looking north from my magnificent Bonneville:But deeper into this world of trailers, boatyards and fish traps there's a Tom Thumb convenience store right there on the main drag that offers Stock Islanders a place to get the ncessaries and to hang out:For some a flat surface is all that's needed to pass the time of day...not unlike how things go in Key West, except that around here tourists are less numerous.I am quite fond of Hogfish on Front Street, a bar and restaurant that serves a mean basket of fish and chips, in the open air environment that we all love and enjoy on a brisk sunny, winter day in the Keys. Good luck finding Front Street, a road which leads to the old power generating station that Keys Energy keeps on stand-by in case the main powerline from the mainland fails. The Stock Island power station could keep Key West in electricty for a couple of weeks if needed. Hogfish keeps the hungry traveler in fish and beer as the need arises: The Rusty Anchor is another good one, nondescript from the exterior but with a long history of serving up plates of seafood on 5th and Shrimp Road. These aren't fancy eateries but suppliers of honest grub to the workers looking for their noontime break. My favorite breakfast joint is an unassuming Cuban place serving an inexpensive plate of eggs, bacon and grits with a steaming cup of con leche right here:

The view from El Mocho of Maloney Avenue is what it is, certainly not waterfront vistas but the food is what counts and for the daily regulars bellied up to the counter this place is a source of the real daily news. At my table I sop up my grits with cuban toast and soak up the ambiance. Tomorrow who knows what might be occupying this spot?

Across the street lies the fire station,charged with protecting all these homes and businesses, scattered around south Stock Island. It seems a lot of ask of this tiny fire station and plans have been mooted to modernize the facility. Where the money will come from with the county's current state of insolvency doesn't bear wondering about. County employees have been laid off, more than two dozen so far, next year the budget crisis will undoubtedly deepen as Amendment One kicks in. A State prosecutor quit the other day because his salary didn't qualify him for a loan he needed to buy an apartment. The State Attorney's office in the Keys has the highest turnover rate in the state- 40 percent in 2007. I saw this vehicle outside this trailer and I don't put it beyond the bounds of possibility that a Deputy Sheriff lives in a trailer on Stock Island. This is affordable housing for all kinds of workers. We are in crisis in the lower Keys and the impending redevelopment of Stock Island trailer parks seems likely to make the crisis worse. When you see travel trailers made into permanent housing you know the need for somewhere to live is well beyond platitudes.One curiosity that I find somewhat ironic is that a mobile home, even of the permanently immobile sort, is rated as a registered vehicle in the state of Florida and all these homes have little vehicle registration stickers on them, like this one under the mailbox:I didn't have to look far for the signature piece of furniture I am finding in all neighborhoods I photograph in the Keys:Away from the waterfront and all its marinas and commercial shrimping there lies a neighborhood of homes off Cross Street called "Lincoln Gardens" in the official lingo but known locally as "The Avenues." Its a wild mixture of trailers and homes, old and new:This two year old modular home on stilts is for sale, all one thousand square feet of it, for $368,000 according to the brochure. It has 3 bedrooms, two baths and bugger all in the way of landscaping. Nearby there is a row of two story housing that has been built for sale as affordable and I have no idea what their selling price is. Units deeded affordable generally go for possibly $200,000 for 1 bedrooms and around $250,000 for two bedrooms to qualified county residents. The Conch style homes are next to Bernstein Park, which is an open space landmark in this part of the island.Across from the park is the old dog track now transformed into several blocks of affordable rentals, built by Ed Swift part owner of Historic Tours of America. Swift comes in for a lot of criticsm not least thanks to his street-clogging Conch Trains, but he has put his money where his mouth is. These places look pretty good for $700 a month for a one bedroom:Let's face it he could do more and Meridien West is supposed to be matched I believe at some future date by another 100 units labeled Meridien East, a suitable replacement for a long defunct drive in theater.

These are the times that try men's souls and as I wonder how long I will be able to hold on to my little tree house, our leaders, to their eternal shame, haven't yet sorted out a collective Plan A to replace worker homes which are being reborn as playgrounds for the rich. God knows where it will all end.


Heinz N Frenchie said...

We are afraid that your story is the same all over Florida. The price of RE is shameful, the taxes are elevated due to the prices of homes, and no one seems to be giving an inch. The tax relief recently voted is a joke. The middle class has become the lower class and the lower class is fast becoming the homeless class. Where is it all going?

bikerphoto said...

A very interesting tour you are giving of the keys. I had never heard of Stock Island before. I agree with what you say abou the fishermen, favoring the disorganized and free lifestyle, even though they endure dangerous working conditions, economic hardship, and brave the elements. There are times that white collar workers could live a simpler life, like that of the fishermen.

I'd like to ride my bike the full length of US 1, starting in Maine and ending in Key West. It would be a great project to ride the entire length, shooting pictures and blogging along the way about the communities and the people on that road.

Here in Maryland, US 1 still has a few old motels that were so predominant before the time of I-95. But mostly US 1 is changing here, being lined with newley developed strip shopping centers and housing developments.

Thanks for the insightful reporting on the keys. I'm always an interested reader.

Conchscooter said...

I am enjoying my wanderings with a camera, it gives a focus to my outings. It would be fun to see other parts of US 1- the only bit we ever hear about is Ft Kent, Maine where it ends...
On Amendment One I would have preferred a stronger focus on increasing the resident Homestead exemption to assist Floridians and fewer attempts to manipulate the housing market by weakening the state's tax base. We shall have to hope for the best while expecting the worst.

rsbstarr said...

I was in Florida just two weeks ago -- not the Keys, but the Ft. Lauderdale area. Gentrification is a problem all over the state. It will probably slow down for a while, though, because of the housing market crash. There's no money to be made right now in re-developing places like Stock Island.

I also noticed you refer to the island's boat hoist as a travelift. My impression was that travelift could only refer to a Marine Travelift boat hoist. I guess the same way as people use the word Kleenex to refer to tissues in general, so they're now using travelift to refer to boat hoists in general.

Conchscooter said...

Large developers ar ehaving some difficulties which may slow things down slightly. But unlike the mainland there isn't a glut of low cost housing tbe keys- there are vast tracts of condos downtown and $100,000 homes inland from the Miami/Ft Lauderdale corridor which will depress the markets. There are extremely hard times ahead for Florida like ellsewhere and things will get worse no doubt.
As to travelifts, I try not to get too technical on boat stuff but the Travelift is the machine illustrated in the photo. It drops slinsg into the water the boat drives in and is lifted out.

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