Saturday, December 13, 2008

Historic Tours Of America

Here's a nasty one. I heard that HTA has stopped buying health benefits for it's employees and has cut everyone back to part time status. What an appalling thought! Ed Swift has been a lightning rod for criticism in Key West among people irritated by the growth of tourism in the city beyond the bounds of what they thought was proper. I've never met the man but I've seen him around town and heard him make passionate speeches in support of affordable housing. Cynics argued that was a way to get government subsidised homes for his myriad workers but Ed Swift, the most visible of three partners of HTA, has an interesting history in the city of Key West.
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Imagine Key West as a failing enterprise in the 1960s. It was a tiny beach town with nothing much to offer (!). The Navy was withdrawing many of its personnel, the city had no income and past booms had dried up. Key West smuggled quantities of merchandise in it's history, most recently alcohol during prohibition, but the boom years of post World War Two America had passed the little town by. Marijuana smuggling became big business for a while in the seventies but fishing and boozing were it, mostly. Communications were awful, five long hours to drive to Miami, weak electricity supplies and fuzzy phone lines. The town was crumbling.
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Ed Swift and some others bought up distressed storefronts on Duval and bet they could turn the city around. I've heard tell the stories of what it took to make Key West return from the dead and it was a huge gamble. There were others, young Pritam Singh, notorious for camping on Christmas Tree (Wisteria) Island as a "hippy" returned and created with some enormous difficulty the Truman Annex. Tony Falcone and his late partner anchored Duval Street with their eclectic department store and gay America came, not for the sailors but for the friendly guest houses in a mild winter climate.
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I heard Ed Swift at a city commission meeting one night some years ago, during our last boom time. Tall balding and shy in public he gripped the lectern and argued forcefully for the working stiffs of Key West. I still remember his most memorable phrase that night ".....I've been lucky and Key West has made me a wealthy man..." which in a world where people deny reality all the time I thought was a statement that took a lot of guts. People that worked for HTA made a good living too from what I heard. I had no desire to drive a trolley or Conch Train despite rumored income of $40,000 or more. With health benefits. Thats one way to spread the "good luck" around.
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Some people may still enjoy tearing at a man who had the guts to follow his dream and make it come true, but I hope the rumors are exaggerated and HTA and it's annoyingly slow trains survive the tourist crunch, however serious it may or may not be. Good people need good work, if nothing else. Swift has annoyed me at times, his lawsuit against the TV company that filmed next to his home, the rumored re-routing of Navy jets away from the island where he lives to cover the poorer sections of Stock Island, and those bloody slow poke trains. But if Ed Swift is hurting we will all be hurting too because he's smart and hardworking and whatever else he has done he has made Key West a town worth living in. I wish him, and his workers, well.

Calais Lane

I don't know why this area of open space got a name but strictly speaking its a real Key West city street:Calais Lane crosses three blocks, from Amelia to United streets and it is a real weirdo of a street. At the Amelia end it looks like this more or less:The fashionable refurbished home with the pink shutters is on Amelia and so far the lane looks fairly normal. But here it follows its own outlandish pattern. The cyclist is actually riding on the bank parking lot and Calais Lane is hidden behind the low white wall, like this:The First State Bank on Simonton Street has a large parking lot:Calais Lane itself isn't really residential (someone will pop up and say that of course they spent most of the 70's on Calais Lane in a drug induced haze, just to prove me wrong!) but there are houses nearby:They've also just built a new pocket park alongside the lane. These little gardens have been popping up all over town, but this one is still a little sparsely decorated:The plan is for a facade of a cigar factory worker's home to be erected inside the park. This location was the site of worker housing for the nearby Gato cigar factory, which is now county offices on Simonton Street. This area was known as Gatoville thanks to the high proportion of Gato's dependants who lived here before the cigar factories decamped and went north to Tampa. I guess Key west was expensive even in those days. Who knows maybe a hundred years ago these two youngsters could have been cigar workers wending their way home down United Street:
They aren't nearly as intriguing when you remember it's 2008 and they aren't sepia tinted curiosities, just your neighbors.