Monday, September 27, 2010

Downtown Stock Island

There is a touch of irony involved in associating "downtown" with "Stock Island" in the title of this essay. The heart of the place pulses twenty four hours a day right here:The fact is that Stock Island can be reduced to a stereotype as easily as anywhere, and in light of the fact that it is the poorer, more run down neighbor, first island in line up the Keys from trendy Key West, the stereotyping is likely to be negative.Stock Island is and always has been since Key West was founded that island that existed to serve the county seat. In 1828 they put cattle on Stock Island and the herds gave the place it's name. There was no road, no railway, no airport and the smugglers and millionaires and working people wanted meat when they could afford it. So they kept their cows on the hoof here and slaughtered them on Rest Beach as needed.The pictures I took of this central area of Stock Island reflect the reality I see when I pass through there from time to time. It's place of what I am pleased to call light industry, that is to say this is where you come to get a scooter (or car) fixed, to hire a technician or get something fabricated.Some people come to pray at the Key West Baptist Temple, in it's own way a cathedral of order in a sea of chaos. The fact that it is called Key West and not Stock Island reflects the reality that the city next door dominates the tenor of life here. Residents on this island have the postal code that is served out of the main Key West Post Office, so for many residents that "Key West" address means they live in the city. When they call for police service they are inclined to say they live in Key West, which they don't, they live in unincorporated Monroe County which is served by the Sheriff.
Houses here sold for more than half a million dollars during the madness of the boom years. They don't any more.Like most places in Monroe County zoning laws are best exemplified by their lack of consistency, if one wants to be polite. A lot of people like the urban chaos of no sidewalks, no landscaping and an agglomeration of commercial and residential in an untidy heap.
I appreciate, more than many incomers, the ability one has to be left alone around here to live one's life. I am caught though by my preference for order over chaos. I'd like to see sidewalks and trash cans and a good deal less garbage in the streets.I hear this argument over the rather untidy front Big Pine Key presents to passers-by on the Overseas Highway at Mile Marker 30. Lots of people speak up loudly against gentrification, arguing landscaping will attract people who are better served by the rigid rules of life in Key West. Big Pine is reserved for non conformists and people content to live away from the demands of a tourist economy.Stock Island at Mile Markers Six and Five makes almost no pretense at siphoning tourist money from Key West.Stock Island had been facing massive redevelopment as money multiplied on Key West real estate and this was the obvious next market. This worker housing and small business refuge was on the verge of extinction.Maps were drawn up and published in the newspaper showing vast tracts of this land concentrated into a few developer's hands. I guess the plans are still there, and the owners still own the plans and the land.So far our failing economy has killed off redevelopment, or gentrification of Stock Island.I am actually happy about that but I doubt it will last. Cheyenne was sniffing around and suddenly jerked back as though electrified! She had been startled by the sight of two sleepers under a sea grape tree. You certainly don't have to leave Key West to see people sleeping in public places.Stock Island is an entirely residential community in the sense that people raise families here, and when they aren't here they can most likely be found working in restaurants and hotels and government jobs in Key West. This is, in a sense, a bedroom community for the "metropolis" next door.Some people are pleased to think there are youth gangs in these islands. There are youngsters that form groups, typically the Stock Rockers from around here versus the Village Boys from Bahama Village. However these aren't gangs in the big city sense. There are no fights, no weapons no big scenes.The worst that can be said is that illegal rooster fighting takes place around here. I have seen youngsters on scooters riding around clutching recently captured street roosters, birds that face getting their coxcombs burnt off and being put out to fight to the death in "secret" rings.Some might argue cock fighting is Cuban cultural thing, even though it is outlawed and it certainly offends my tidy bourgeois sensibilities. Kids here have the opportunity as do youngsters do in Key West, of living relatively free lives of bicycles and boats. From a distance it seems an idyllic way to grow up.100 percent financing? Have we learned absolutely nothing at all? Trailer parks cover much of this part of Stock Island, the ultimate in low income housing for the workers. Palm trees supposedly beautify anything. The hardest thing about living in trailers is the absolute need to evacuate for a hurricane.
West Marine, the California boating supply chain, saw fit to muscle in and set up a shop here. There is one in Key Largo, one in Marathon and one on Caroline Street in Key West in addition to this one.Like Wal Mart West Marine has the capacity to drive smaller Mom and Pop stores out of business. Is there enough recreational boating left to support even this chain store?While the tourist attractiveness is low there are a couple of reasons visitors brave the working class neighborhood.Cheyenne loved sniffing around the base of the trailers, a pass time that was less amusing for me. However I did spot this cat lounging on a cold air conditioning duct in the 90 degree afternoon. It was so comfortable that even Cheyenne, peacefully rooting around three feet away was not reason enough to move.Need aluminum work?
Or fiberglass work?
Or hydraulic hose work?If your car gets towed from Key West it could end up here. There is a lot of activity on Stock Island.
And some inactivity too.
The Tom Thumb may not be everyone's idea of a place to watch the world go by, but sooner or later it seems everyone who needs something done might have a reason to come by and be seen here. Stock Island is after all where I bring my motorcycle for service from time to time at Jiri's shop nearby.