Sunday, May 15, 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.

Orchid Key Inn

The Orchid Key Inn on Duval Street at Truman Avenue is justifiably proud of their art deco bar and it's art deco bar stools. For some reason I failed to get their stools in my picture when Chuck took me by to show me their renovated hotel and rather fancy bar so I used their picture because the stools are lovely. I took Chuck's picture instead, and he's lovely too, of course.The bar includes a massive array of drinks including some liquor that Chuck says is unique to this place in Key West. I forget what it is so no doubt we shall have to return and try it when Chuck gets back into town. I shall endeavor not to make a fool of myself with it. Quite aside from the liquor license this place is quite charming, on Duval next to Truman. It's hard to miss if you pass it with your eyes at all open.We took a short self guided tour which consisted mostly of crossing the parking lot, startling a house keeper by peeking into an open door and studying the nicely appointed art deco rooms... ... and the swimming pool is quite nice looking too. We did the bar aforementioned......and checked out the decorations.
...and we thought to ourselves this might very well be a place where out of town guests might like to sleep close to Duval. Actually right on Duval. Not bad.

Bonneville By Night

It was another of those lunch breaks that found me meandering around town with nowhere particular to go. Tonight was the night I stopped at Flagler and Bertha and took a picture of the pelican mural at the real estate company. At two in the morning parking on the sidewalk elicits no comment as there is no one around. Riding through the city in the early hours of the morning is a reminder of just how crowded our world is. At this hour the air's warm because night time doesn't see a huge drop in temperatures in Key West and riding in shirt sleeves is a pleasure.With nowhere particular to go I figured I might as well see how many people were clogging Duval Street, which is always a useful gauge to figure out how busy the rest of the night will be. However Duval is a bore to ride as the street tends to attract bicycles weaving and pedi-cabs blocking cars and taxis stopping to pick people up and endless red lights. So one tends to end up on Whitehead which is much more picturesque.I like to walk at night and enjoy the scent of the flowers and listen to the noises of the night which tend to be muted and while walking, even if I start out with no idea what to photograph things magically appear.Everything looks good on these flowered historic streets. But in the end I'm back looking at the Bonneville in front of another mural. It's Wilhelmina Harvey giving the old Seven Mile Bridge the Crossing The Delaware treatment on Olivia Street.

A straight shot up Olivia past the cemetery, night air rushing once again and I'm back at work before I know. No traffic to dodge at night. What a joy!

Swimming In The Keys

It's that time of year when the skiff leaves the dock several afternoons each week and we head out to Newfound Harbor for a swim.To the north we have Big Pine Key and numbers of anchored boats.
Our destination was Picnic Island, a lump of sand thrown up in the middle of the bay where boaters like to congregate mostly on weekends and play music and drink and splash around. My wife and I prefer the quieter corners of the bay where others don't care to anchor and we thus find peace and quiet to enjoy the 80 degree waters of our backyard "swimming pool with a view."Some people build elaborate houseboats to hang out on the water like this one that lives here permanently it seems:It is a great source of irony to me that we have a house on a canal and a boat and we use the boat quite frequently in the summer but we don't like to chase fish. We just like to swim and enjoy the water without putting ourselves in the food chain.Our work schedules tend to overlap so if my wife can get home in time we can go out for an hour......swim and watch the sun go down......and if it's a work night for me I can be on my way to work by 5pm on the Bonneville; or, if it's a blessed night off we can get close to dark out on the water before skimming home.Our 14-foot Dusky skiff is simple by our choice- what electronics we don't have won't break, so we have no lights on the boat which means we have to be home before dark or we turn into pumpkins.It's a five minute ride up the canal at walking (NO Wake) speed, and very serene it is too. Even when we came across other canal users! To me the pleasure of Keys living is in the suburbs, the homes away from the city which with any luck have access to the water.Sunset across the salt ponds behind my house. And so to bed.

A Key West Cafe Racer

Last Wednesday was British Motorcycles in Key West Day. I finally got to ride with Chuck while he was blatting through town on his BSA 650.It's a work in progress and not quite ready to take to Highway One but it looked and sounded lovely riding around town. Those were the days when motorcycles were much more spare and essential than today. We took off riding without cell phones or GPS and amazingly enough we not only arrived, frequently but we had fun traveling hopefully too.Facing facts: Chuck is an engineer by trade and loves messing around with machinery so he's just the man to won and maintain a forty year old motorcycle that needs rather more attention than my 40 year old twin. Chuck has the BSA nicely tuned too, nicely enough he could start it barefoot:I took off down Frances Street and let Chuck pass me, looking good, on our way to lunch.The Beeza sounded like a million dollars with pretty much open pipes and a firm hand on the throttle. Chuck grinned at me later and said he spotted a neighbor looking rather old fashioned at him. "Middle aged hooligan!" he referred to himself cheerfully. Following Chuck I got occasional whiffs of burnt engine oil from the right cylinder but it was impressive to see how easily he could change gears in flip flops on the elderly gear box and how smoothly the bike took the turns in town, no popping or back firing or hesitation.It is a much finer way to get around Key West than on some anonymous scooter. And you tend to make friends as you go. Here Chuck got a copy of Motorcycle Classic slipped surreptitiously to him with a BSA featured on the cover.
Chuck is always trying to palm off old finds on me but my wife has a one motorcycle rule which is fair enough. Otherwise I wouldn't mind at all having a second machine under the house, an old Moto Guzzi perhaps and riding that around town I too might be seen grinning like this: In a world filled with unnecessary complication the BSA is the perfect antidote. Get on and ride and damn the electrons!

Big Pine Back Street

Houses have always been for sale in the Keys in large numbers and they still are, but things aren't exactly what they used to be.I know home price devastation has swept the land south of the 49th parallel but in the Keys the effects have been mitigated somewhat because people with money, who don't need to borrow from the banks are coming down and snatching up homes in the sun. One can't blame them, but several of my young colleagues are trying to secure their futures in the Keys buying homes with first time buyer loans. One couple in their 20's got a house on a swimming canal (no motors allowed) ten miles out of Key West on stilts for just over $300,000. Four years ago it would have gone for $550,000 in a bidding war.
Dry lots, homes without direct access to salt water, are selling around $200,000 in the islands between Key West and the Seven Mile Bridge. That's affordable around here.Writing as a homeowner well underwater already I don't think the housing market is coming back. We live in a country animated by the belief that if you believe hard enough it will happen but n numbers don't lie. There are tens of millions out of work and many more with jobs that are paying less and less. Security is at an all time low among the working classes. Oil is expensive, weather is violent and causing economic hardship and banks are still finding it more profitable to borrow money low from the Government and lend it back high than to make loans to the dwindling numbers of people with decent if not spectacular wages. It's all completely crazy but it's on display for anyone to see if only they pull their heads from the sand.That being the case how can house prices rise? They may stabilize in the keys as gentrification moves forward apace- speculators are buying up assets at fire sale prices, but there are still enough foreclosed homes on the market at fire sale prices to keep the housing market feeble. Given all that I'm betting that next prices will be lower than this and Realtors will be screaming even louder, as they go out of business, that "NOW is the time to buy!"