Friday, May 13, 2011

Truman Meditation

Duval Street is Key west to a lot of visitors. That there is a whole island city behind the main drag is of no interest at all to some people. On the other the reverse is true too; I know plenty of people who won't go near Duval Street and it's crowds and bars and shopping and color and noise and light.For some people the peace and serenity of Truman Annex is the answer. It's a gated community just west of Whitehead Street managed by the Truman Annex Master Property owners Association. It wasn't always this way. The Fort Zachary Annex to the Key West Navy Base was founded in 1845 and became a submarine base in the years before World War Two. In 1974 it ceased to be a Navy installation when huge nuclear subs rendered the small submarine docks obsolete. Most obligingly the Navy auctioned the land and it was bought by a developer for 17 million dollars. The fly in the ointment was that he didn't have the money.They named it Truman Annex after the President so much time here on vacation at the house used by the base commander, nowadays a museum known as the Little White House. However Key West in 1974 was a very different, and some will argue better, place. Be that as it may the land was allowed to deteriorate for a decade before finally being auctioned off and there were big plans for it even as the new owner struggled to find the money to build the dream.A young private developer bought the land, a man who came down from the Frozen Northeast as so many do and stayed despite the hardship and difficulty of his early life in Key West. The story goes he slept rough on Wisteria/Christmas Tree Island and he promised himself a new life in the sub tropics. Romantic stuff of course and terribly exciting but whatever the story the fact is he pulled it together and built the Annex as we see it today.
Pritam Singh's development (be became a Sikh, grew a beard and took a new name despite his white bread northeast antecedents- just another Key West story) has been criticized and demeaned but the fact is he made a fortune off it and set the tone for developments all round Florida that are built in the "Key West style." Which is to say the "Pritam Singh style." Which is no mean tribute. I am no great fan of gated communities, how could I be, but for some people the cleanliness, order and peace and quiet of the Annex in the midst of the vibrancy of Key West's raw street life is the perfect mixture of color and serenity. Actually it seems to work for a lot of people judging by this place's success. Furthermore a certain amount of short term renting is now legally permitted in the Annex so out of town owners can get some money back on their investments, though Key West house prices continue to plummet, albeit more slowly than many other places across the country.

The down side of short term rentals is that even the Annex gets a modest number of rowdy people in town to make noise and celebrate their vacation time with their sleeping neighbors. On the whole though the Annex is a clean well run place.

The Truman Annex is one of those focal points in a community that forces thoughtful people to ask questions and seek answers. The principal question that never gets answered is: what sort of community does Key West want to be? Ever since this land was sold by the US government in 1986 the question has been forced on the city and the city has failed to reply. On one end of the spectrum we see the cheap baubles and plastic gimmickry that appeals to tourist crowds and on the other hand we see multi million dollar homes and expensive restaurants set in the middle of a community that celebrates drunkenness and nudity and homelessness and endless debates about whither Key West.

I know Naples, the monied destination on the Southwest Florida beaches poses no such questions. It is in it for the money no questions asked, no moral issues raised. The Redneck Riviera on the Florida Panhandle revels in it's appeal to the working class visitors from Dixie. Key West can't figure out which way to go and dithers in a spectacular way that provokes endless argument and barbed comments in the paper. Truman Annex is the living breathing contradiction.

On the one hand the monied plutocrats want to be seen as people of the people supporting art and bohemianism (as long as it's not too dirty and too intrusive) and on the other hand they want law order and cleanliness to come home to. They want Disneyland with a touch of reality thrown in, but just a touch. In the end I suspect money will talk in Key West as it does everywhere and bullshit will take a hike to the mainland. As the United States takes long strides down the route of social and economic inequality and we become more like the Mexico of the early 20th century, the wealthy who will do quite well in the years to come will flock to key West for the weather and the illusory safety of US soil and the colorful folks will continue to retreat in the face of untenable costs of living. Just as they have since the 1980s. Just when the tipping point is reached will be a matter of individual taste. For me it's a long way off but there are thousands of Conchs in Central Florida already who rue the changes wrought thus far and more no doubt will join them.

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