Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Searstown

When Searstown came into existence in the 1960's it was a huge innovation for the little fishing village at the end of the highway. The land here was fill created to help the railroad cross from Cow Key Channel to Trumbo Point where the ferries waited to take passengers to Havana. It's hard to imagine but New Town after World War Two was a bucolic open space with fields and dairy cows criss crossed by little white gravel lanes and the occasional home. This photo I found of Flagler's Casa Marina Hotel, the "other" railroad destination in Key West, at keyshistory.org a fascinating site well worth checking out:Almost since it's inception in the early 19th century, Key West had been a city of twelve or thirteen thousand inhabitants clustered around the harbor on the western edge of the island. Then development came, with a vengeance and the shopping mall appeared, heralding the creation of New Town and boosting the population across the whole island to around 25,000. Ah yes, Publix, where shopping is a pleasure..."You have a Publix here?" was the indignant question from a friend visiting from mainland Florida, as though the intrusion of sophisticated grocery store chains was beyond Key West's ken even in the 21st century. I shrugged. Yup, and we have drive-through ("thru") fast food too, and some people get their food by driving thru:Visit Key West, wander no further east than Simonton Street from your Duval Street mega hotel, perhaps if you are daring, take a bike ride to White Street but let Sears remain outside your consciousness. The tawdry reality of ordinary people doing ordinary shopping will wreck the pirate stories told and retold at the bars downtown:Searstown is one of three big (relatively big) shopping centers which also include Key Plaza (KMart, possibly going out of business, Radio Shack Office Max and Blockbuster among national chains) and Overseas Market (Winn Dixie, Ross, Pier One, TGI Friday's) all lined up along the Boulevard (North Roosevelt). I suppose Key West would be more charming without them but really choices are limited enough this far from anywhere it would be a shame to force them out, and locals, Conchs most especially, people who hate driving up the Keys, would I have no doubt rise up in arms. There's a six screen mainstream theater at the Regal, another facility geared to youngsters who have "nothing to do in Key West":Some people really like deliveries from China Garden West (for those too exhausted to drive three miles from Simonton Street there is another China Garden at Fleming Street and a third on Big Pine Key, 30 miles north). Every Publix in Florida boasts a Chinese restaurant next door in every plaza I've ever seen. Key West is no exception: I am surprised how much I enjoy the occasional meal at Outback, efficient service, quiet televisions (which I hate in bars and restaurants and waiting rooms) and decent prices. I could pay four times as much at a fancy place downtown but I have a living to earn. Conchs love their sports so it's no surprise there is a chain sports equipment store, another facility for kids who have "nothing to do" in Key West:I've never been inside Champs but I do visit Conch Scoops, the coffee shop next door to Outback and Quiznos in this end of the shopping center. My wife and I frequently get a cafe con leche before I go to work and she drives home. Yvonne's family has lived here for generations and she knows how to make a Conch con leche which I can only have when my wife's not around as it involves sweetened condensed milk...Sears has an auto repair facility......and a garden center as wellAnd the City buses as well as the Lower Keys Shuttle buses to Marathon stop in front of Publix:I look out across the expanse of this development and wonder what the scattered few residents of these fields would think if they could come back and take a look themselves a hundred years later.It's easy to grumble about development but one has to consider too the fact that we get to live longer and in many ways with greater ease than previously. Perhaps I am getting more sensitive to the issue as I grow older myself, but I see a difference between these shopping plazas and the creation of million dollar condos. Like it or not Searstown provides services for people who live here.

Florida is known world wide as the place where people go to die and even though the Keys used to boast a population much younger than the state average the gap is closing. It has to, it's too expensive to raise a family in the islands and the population of children is dropping. Not to say that seniors in Key West dodder quite as much as elsewhere in God's waiting room:As the world economy shrinks I wonder what the Key West population will look like in the years to come, perhaps more wealthy visitors and retirees with a smaller population of civil servants to wait on them hand and foot... and I wonder what sort of job prospects there will be for the youngsters, who love their mainland fashions and their electronic devices.Searstown has the necessaries resembling those of the mainland, the peninsula where home values have plummeted and people are reportedly leaving in droves. We have fast food:Alternative "banks":Which businesses are part of a little strip mall inside the Searstown Mall called Peacock Plaza:But here in the Keys things only appear to resemble elsewhere because some things are done in a particular way. I occasionally read the Internet scooter forums where people new to riding marvel at their vehicles' abilities to carry a load. They post excited photographs showing how they make useful work horses out of their exotic Italian rides. In Key West a scooter is a daily ride, no muss no fuss for riders of all ages:In another month the snowbirds will retreat and take their money with them to hot sticky cities across the north, and we will be left to fill the spaces left behind. Parking will magically reappear, the complaints column in the paper will stop reporting on issues of crowding and will revert to more interesting political sniping and from the parks many of the seasonal homeless will also depart in the other, less noticed migration:And for those away and thinking about Key West they can watch Goldie Hawn's Criss Cross and see if they can spot this location:In the movie Hawn takes off her clothes there, but I'm advised this is in real life just another place to go drinking. Perhaps it's emblematic of the Keys, the islands are what you want them to be, whether real or not.