Friday, May 13, 2011

Duval Travelers

I watched these tourists dithering with their map and no certain idea which way to go. I tend to forget how confusing this little town can be, yet one is constantly stumbling over people trying to figure their direction of travel.Then there are those who know exactly which way they are going and bicycle travel remains the easiest way to get there.The International Energy Agency recently issued a rather blunt report saying renewable energy cannot hope to provide sufficient power for seven billion people. Even as we start the slow path in the direction of engines other than those powered by internal combustion. This electric work truck is still rare, even in Key West. Even so bicycles are practical and cheap and they really do work well.I favor my motorcycle of course even though it isn't one more among the ubiquitous Harleys. Or you could easily rent a scooter and ride to the beach.
Or let someone else do the pedaling.
And I have noticed that many more pedi-cab drivers are Americans these days. During the boom years they seemed to be exclusively Slavs. And we give the final word to alternative transportation of the home built kind. Solar power to supplement the electric energy to run the motor. The future perhaps, for all of us?

Truman Meditation

For many visitors to Key West the life and color and chaos of Duval Street is what they come to town to see and enjoy.However for some other people the ability to live close by but to be removed from the chaos itself is worth moving behind bars. Truman Annex used to be the annex to the Key West Navy Base, founded in 1845 and renamed thanks to the time President Truman spent here during his presidency. In 1974 the annex was declared surplus to requirements and in 1986 was auctioned off to a young, untested developer who didn't actually have the 17 million dollar selling price.
Pritam Singh first came to Key West as a youthful wanderer and the tale is told he slept rough on Christmas Tree Island and around the city owing to his reduced circumstances. It is a typical Key West story from the era, a visionary who saw what was possible in a town made derelict by disuse and disinterest. Singh, a white boy from Boston, took up Sikhism, renamed himself and took off putting up developments right and left.

Singh's developments are noted for landscaping and a particular style of building known everywhere as the "Key West style" though I think more properly it should be attributed to the man who made it popular. I am no great fan of gated communities not least here as Key West itself is something of a gated community- an island at the end of a what is essentially a very long peninsula with one bridge in and one only. Yet for some people the cleanliness and "safety" of gates and security guards are what allow them to sleep at night.Plus in a town where short term rentals are regulated the Annex won a court case permitting short term rentals much more loosely than in the rest of the city. That means absentee owners make some money off an investment that has lost value here as elsewhere in the US over the last few years. It also means drunks do occasionally troll through here on their way back to their vacation digs.Pritam Singh is now suggesting he might be ready to build a hotel on the open space near Schooner Wharf and he has his critics as well as his supporters. The way he landscapes has been mentioned as a positive thing while other people think his plans will lower the tone of the neighborhood. I don't think Truman Annex, for all it's gates and fences, has lowered the tone but it does raise questions in my mind.Key West is a tourist town that has great difficulty defining itself. On the one hand it tries to appeal to the mass tourism of cruise ships and t shirt shops and open air bars that throw alcohol down as a challenge almost as one walks the few blocks of Lower Duval.At the same time the city is littered with homes fit for millionaires as winter toys, restaurants of discernment and expense, and resorts that appeal to people who don't mind spending money for a high end winter retreat vacation. All in the security found inside the passport-free borders of the United States.So what is the city to do? High brow or low? We get no leadership from city leaders not least because the status quo is making important people money. There has to be a fear of upsetting the apple cart at a time when Key West is the only tourist destination in Florida that is seeing higher numbers of visitors than in years past. Every other destination in the sunshine state is seeing a decrease.
Truman Annex is gentrification and that is a word the provokes strong reactions. yet Key West has always been about gentrification ever since it was founded. It was home to Florida's first millionaire and the city went bankrupt in the Great Depression. Rich people come and go and workers do the same. Residents lament the changes, but they always have. The good old days are today, and yet we live in the shadow of the perfection of the good old days of yesterday and we worry about how to maintain the balance between the gentry and the rest of us. I like the balance as it is, when I came in 1981 Key West was a backwater and I was too young to enjoy it. Now that I'm middle aged and have seen all the bright lights I care to I'd like to have the old Key West of 1981, back. There again with the economy trending as it is there is a chance it may well come around again. I plan to take it as it comes, upscale or low, or just the same. What else is there to do? Keep on keeping on...of course!

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.

Blogger Fails

In case you haven't noticed Blogger has been down for thirty odd hours and it appears still to be come and go service. As frustrating as this is Google has said nothing about what is going on or why so one has to take things as they come.

I have lost posts and have been trying to re-write as many as I can but Blogger has more frustrating than satisfying, though things seem to be back to normal so I am resuming normal posting. I hope the recent pattern of repeatedly writing the same post and having the system reject it over and over again is now over! Expect a new essay at 5pm Eastern time.

If anything this frustration has shown me how much I am enjoying working this blog and taking the pictures and planning my essays. All my plans are in confusion and the time set aside to compose the essays has been wasted! Oh well.

I apologize of course on behalf of the half-wits at Google who have lost control of their system. Perhaps we should take this failure as a preview of the collapse that a lot of people believe is headed our way, a mixture of Peak Oil, Climate Change, Endless War, Economic Greed, and Political Corruption. A nasty mixture indeed that my modest picture taking keeps at bay from the forefront of my mind.

I look forward to everything going back to normal, at least for a while longer...And irony of ironies on Wednesday, the very day the system failed I recorded 1040 visitors to my blog the largest number ever in a single day. I wrote an essay thanking you all for your support but that effort has vanished into the ether like so much else I wrote this week. Thank you all anyway for your interest.


Michael and Cheyenne.

The Bull And Whistle

So it's Friday morning and for most people who still have jobs this presages the beginning of the weekend. What better way to spend the weekend than flinging off your clothes and sitting down at a bar with a bunch of strangers to get drunk together?The Naked Lunch, a nude restaurant failed and was replaced by El Alamo, a fully dressed bar of recent memory, but the Garden of Eden ploughs along happily at the top of the Bull and Whistle building on Duval Street.
Even if I weren't working this weekend I could think of many ways to spend the time, even with a beer without taking my clothes off and sitting on a stool recently vacated by another nude patron. One could I suppose stop off on the ground floor and retreat from the 90 degree heat in the Bull itself.I've never been to the Garden of Eden not the one at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers nor yet at the one at the top of the Bull and Whistle Bar.I'm sure we're all very relieved about that. The walls of the Bull are lined with paintings of people famous in Key West, Audubon, Flagler, Buffett, Tennessee Williams and Papa of course; everyone wants a bit of him.Bushes at the top, balconies in the middle and murals at the bottom. It would be no bad thing to be there tonight celebrating the start of the weekend. I'll be dispatching, so no beer for me.