Monday, August 18, 2014

Pharmacies For All

So what is it about the conversion of a slightly eccentric Key West department store into a run of the mill corporate pharmacy that has caused a ripple to run through the placid waters of the mill pond political waters of the Southernmost City?

The ubiquitous Facebook corporation gave a platform to people who deplore the change, and they in turn provoked a 3am rebuttal from across the ethernet sounding chamber; all of which I read with increasing puzzlement at a remove created by the support or dissent of others in the network of "friends."

The odd thing about the position taken above is that it states with passion what has been obvious. Tony Falcone's operation had run out of steam for whatever reason. Everyone had an opinion as to why, everyone except me, as I have no particular bent toward shop keeping. I worked at Fast Buck's one year as I waited to be hired by the city. I liked it enough I asked for a raise before quitting to be a dispatcher but though I was a good worker in the shipping department I was not worth twelve dollars an hour, so I went to the city for fifteen and full benefits. Lucky for me as I just marked my tenth anniversary with the city and qualification for a full pension.

I enjoyed working there, the drama, the personalities all viewed from my half-out-the-door perch, made for fine memories, but at heart I wanted structure and certainty in my job.

The attics were warrens of supplies, more suited to the dusty halls of a castle than a shop overlooking Duval Street. I took this picture one Fantasy Fest when bead throwers staffed the ramparts. Not terribly corporate, and they reminded me of my forays above the offices to find merchandise for my boss.

Fast Buck's was that store you would go to and profess familiarity with, to convince yourself you belonged in Key West. One mainland city commissioner famously had to resign after a Key West visit when she returned to her council chambers and passed around boxes of penis pasta as a gift, a souvenir of a happy vacation. Not the gift that is expected or desired in inoffensive mainstream department stores. But Key West...well, that's different.

Not anymore. The Strand was once a movie theater, built in the 1920s which later fell into disrepair completing its theatrical run as a pornographic outlet in a town that was about ready to let Duval Street collapse after the withdrawl of the Navy in the 1960s.

It is now a national pharmacy open all night. But it used to employ local youth showing movies. One comment on a movie forum from 2009 discussing the Strand as one setting of the John Goodman comedy Matinee:
Anonymous said...

I worked there in the 80's when it was a nightclub. Very strange as the building in the movie really looks nothing like The Strand. The outside ticket booth and the stairs yeah maybe but the rest I don't recognise. What a beautiful place that the town allowed to be destroyed! The town is so commercial now I don't even desire to go back.

The picture above from http://www.conchs.com a nostalgia site filled with pictures of places and people of Key West as it was "in the day." I find it hard to bear sometimes when people want to claim Key West for themselves and their era. As I grow older I find myself surrounded by this attitude and I resist it. It is to Key West's credit that everyone wants a piece of it but really, I think if you look underneath the nostalgia some things haven't changed. The San Carlos, wedged between the Fast Buck CVS and the Strand Walgreens is a an outpost of the Miami Cuban emigres versus Cuban government argument that has remained the same pretty much though no longer a diplomatic representative of Cuba. It's a great place to watch movies or hear music but it spends most of its time in staunchly non commercial shuttered form. Not all of Duval Street is crassly commercial.

There is a CVS at 12 Duval, near the Ocean Key House.

You can't quite see the new one going up at 500 Duval from here but it's a five block walk:

Nor can you see the other CVS on Truman and Simonton, but it's close by. Eleven blocks separate the four national chain pharmacies listed above. But we aren't done yet! Note the solid uninspired generic shopping mall architecture of this store:

The thing is Key West has developed no more vision now than it did in its past. Crass commercialism is an expression of economic vitality, and much of Key West's 20th century history was a cycle of booms (alcohol prohibition smuggling) and busts (the First Great Depression) then another boom (World War Two Navy) and then the indifference of a half century of the American pursuit of the foreign exotic vacation which pulled its horns in with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the fear of the foreigner, which leaves this little town ideally place to absorb the newly fearful domestic travelers seeking safe exoticism. And now we have another CVS a mile and a half from the one on Simonton, here in the supremely ugly but possibly useful Overseas Market. Nothing exotic here, move along please, locals only:

One can't blame Tony Falcone for selling his storefront to a winning bidder remembering he had made noise about the CVS interest in the store for long enough to give local entrepreneurs a chance, so there it is. And here's another Walgreens across the street from the CVS at Overseas Market. You have to wonder why Americans are willing to pay so much for so many medications to make this kind of market saturation profitable. The chain supermarkets nearby sell pharmacies, and there is one surviving local pharmacist in the Professional Building on 12th Street which houses the rump of the infamous Dennis Pharmacy much beloved on Simonton Street with the Naugahyde and chrome coffee shop (now a bank). Americans pay higher prices than anyone else anywhere else in the world for their medications. Why? Because corporate America has sold the freemarket myth so convincingly that price controls such as are governmentally mandated in the rest of the world don't apply here. Hence the plethora of identical, boxed, junk filled pharmacies on a four mile long island with 23,000 residents. Profit is the watchword so keep paying premium prices for your meds you free marketers with high blood pressure, diabetes and all the rest.

And yet it's not enough, it's never enough. There's one more being built at Mile Marker Five on Stock Island, just outside Key West. And if you don't think this is a harbinger of what's to come in the way of change for down at heel Stock Island, then you aren't paying attention.

In a world where the Orwellian myths of a non existent past circumscribe the political language of the present it's impossible to imagine local political leaders coming up with a coherent, government supervised strategy to create a downtown that is coherent, humane and dare I say it, useful. And government intervention has to be acceptable to the mythmakers who bleat "socialism" anytime a potentially successful social strategy rears it's ugly battered head... I don't blame Falcone for being the instrument of one more useless pharmacy on Duval Street, and I don't know what the city commission could have done to change the outcome, but I will note that at the Key West Bight where the city owns the land and leases the properties not one national chain has made inroads. The Singhs, the Spottswoods and the Swifts have made a fortune off the charms of the old Key West broad they have prostituted for so long and it's too bad they can't direct her fate away from an old age devoted to supporting stores that give no meaning to Old Town life. Mayor Cates burnt all his political capital just getting the city a beautiful functional city hall at Glynn Archer School. His critics wanted city hall in trailers or in rented rooms as though civic mindfulness were something to be ashamed of. It's not that Key West is beset by commercialism, it's that too much of it is crass. Key West has no ecological sensitivities, no sense of history other than the trite rubbish spoon fed to gullible tourists, and the loss of Fast Bucks is not only the loss of just penis pasta but also of a Tropical Trash department and a gay outrageous cheerfulness in the midst of a world filled with fearful, offend no one, dreary franchised shopkeepers. Fast Bucks was theater, CVS is medication. What a drag.
The concept of combatting sprawl is hardly new, and even though Key West lacks land to permit actual sprawl this invasion of endless chains amounts to the same thing. Indeed there is a website called exactly that, http://www.sprawlwatch.org and from there this excerpt:
————-————

The Aspen Institute's Rural Economic Policy Program has also been examining the peculiar dilemmas facing small rural towns. Its 1995 report, Rural Communities in the Path of Development: Stories of Growth, Conflict and Cooperation, distills a great deal of the wisdom that small town mayors and developments experts have acquired in combating sprawl. As distinctive, stable small towns, many communities have the luxury of deliberately choosing what kind of community they want to become. "We can't ignore the fact that this economy shapes people, and either arms them or disarms them in terms of being able to be part of the community," said Maria Varela of Ganados del Valle, Los Ojos, New Mexico. It's our desire to create a model of doing business in a way that we generate community, not just economic wealth.

The Aspen Institute outlines three strategies for dealing with rapid economic growth in small rural towns:
* Managing land use and resources to protect, for example, open space, environmental resources, historical structures and community character;
* Community-based economic development to restructure and diversify the local economy so that long-term and low- and moderate-income residents benefit from growth; and
* Community or civic capacity building to help communities confront change through goal-setting, education, leadership development, organizing, civic participation, conflict resolution and consensus-building.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also been active in helping small towns balance growth with community values. Through its National Main Street Center, the National Trust has provided technical expertise to help downtowns revitalize themselves in ways that build upon a town's historic identity. Another excellent resource is the Nature Conservancy's Center for Compatible Economic Development in Leesburg, Virginia.

Superstore Sprawl
The colonization of rural America by superstores such as Wal-Mart is another issue that calls for a response from small towns, whose downtown business districts are often decimated. The National Trust has two publications that address these issues: How Superstore Sprawl Can Harm Communities: And What Citizens Can Do About It, and Better Models for Superstores: Alternatives to Big-Box Sprawl. The first report, published in 1994, describes the actual economic, fiscal, environmental and social impacts of superstores, before outlining effective strategies for combating mall sprawl. The report also provides a number of case studies of small towns that have devised better models for dealing with the multinational retailers. The second Trust report, published in 1997, describes how such stores as Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us have been integrated into existing downtowns rather than located on a town's fringe, where it typically contributes to sprawl and downtown decline.

Another player in combating superstores is Al Norman, who led a successful campaign to prevent Wal-Mart from locating on the fringe of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Norman now operates a consulting business, Sprawl-Busters, which advises community groups how to combat Wal-Marts that are not wanted.

-——-—-——————

So community intervention, not on the radar in Key West, is not unknown elsewhere.


This is the Strand I'd like to see back (in a photo from the Florida Public Library files). A place that welcomes you to downtown and even though the sailors and the gay men they attracted have gone elsewhere the rest of us who aren't fossilized could bring a modern yuppy vibe to this small town. I'm 56 and when I go and see live theater in winter I feel like I'm a youngster out on the town in Palm Beach. Key West is selling itself to rich old farts and to cruise ship tourism, simultaneously and schizophrenically. And this apparently divergent path motivated by maximum instant profit is the underlying reason why critics think that only now has Key West sold out to commercialism. The commercialism of the past was grounded in the community that lived here. The families that are the lifeblood of small towns can't afford it here. Schools lack parental involvement as parents are working too much in an effort to stand still, and without a University the city lacks the moral conscience of an educated middle class to point out that recycling, water conservation, solar energy, bicycle paths, pedestrian zones, trees and interesting eccentric stores are what improve quality of life and do not detract from it. If you look at small towns that win quality of life awards on national lists Key West is never among them. Yet this place has abundant live music, theater, movies, literary events, art galleries and decent eateries. It boasts an actual authentic native cuisine, a core of local residents who grew up here and a climate year round to die for. It's architeure is second to none. Yet places as oddball as Sandpoint Idaho, Kennett Square Pennsylvania and Bardstown Kentucky get national mentions as interesting places to visit. Any mention of Key West in the sidebar includes the tired notation that the city has lost some luster.

If you think Key West is a livable town stand on Stock Island near the new CVS site at eight o'clock on a weekday morning and observe the traffic backed up for a mile or more. Every work day they line up like desperate supplicants at a job fair. Which is another reason to work nights and live affordably in a modern home in the hinterlands of the canals of the Lower Keys (and to commute by motorcycle). These people line up to get to work in the city that is the economic engine of the Lower Keys, the city failing to find itself a new identity in a changing world.


The Lower Keys offer a high cost quality of life better than most places in my opinion, not least because I enjoy life lived in sunshine and primary colors with saltwater nearby and people odd enough that still I don't stand out. I hold on tight to the fading proposition that minding your own business is a valuable asset in a neighbor, and I try hard to remember how isolated Key West was in the early 80s when I was a youngster seeking a new home. Today I'd love to return to that Key West but in all honesty the internet has made isolation so much more interesting than previously and where the internet goes, so goes civilization. I wish I had a conclusion to draw, a formula to propose, an answer for the perceived ills of society. Perhaps, sadly it's time Key West printed a copy of that noted bumper sticker "Keep.....Weird" By the time you have to fight to keep Austin or Portland or Boulder weird it's too late in my opinion. The weirdos moved on already.

Instead I shall tell myself it really wasn't that great way back when and in a rational world excess will level off and the pendulum will swing back etc etc... Still, I wish Fast Bucks hadn't gone.

 

7 comments:

Cody Goldman said...

Interesting read today, I read and believe that Fast Buck's closed due to decreased sales over time mostly due to people going in to look but actually buying on the internet. Stores need to add to the cost to cover the stick and brick rent and payroll related to running a store so the internet has the edge. Not to mention, for tourists if you buy something made of glass, it comes nicely delivered vs lugging it on a plane or arranging the shipping. This is global problem for retailers, and hence the big dinosaur malls are in crisis. But my reaction last week when I read CVS was going there was one of not blame the guy but basic questioning supply and demand, and how they think they can support the big CVS at the end of Duval, this location with the Walgreens across the street. it just doesn't make sense. Far be it from me to try and figure out the problem of gentrification of Key West. great article to make us think, thanks

Lorie in Massachussetts (less than a mile from a Rite Aid) said...

Very well written and interesting piece. Thank you for your efforts to look at this from many different points of view and to characterize the many forces at work in this microcosm. It's interesting to me that, as a nation, we are handing over so many of our assets (prime real estate as well as hard cash) to pharmacies rather than funding the kinds of ventures that would promote better health in the first place.

Conchscooter said...

It certainly is a wider national problem than just Key West, but it blows my mind how easy it is not to make the most of what you have, and Key West excels at that. Truman Waterfront conversion will be the next example and the development of Stock Island, long promised, will be a land grab for the highest bidders of ticky tacky boxes, I fear.

Orin said...

Well said. I, too, live in a small city that was a far more interesting and vital place in earlier times, but these days the people who run Bellingham, Wash. and the county surrounding it possess so little imagination they can think of nothing but sales tax revenue from big-box retail (via Canadian shoppers) and paving over the rural areas. Oh, and polluting the lake that is the source of drinking water for over 100,000 residents. Small cities and small businesses just don't matter to the oligarchs and plutocrats who seek to make serfs of us all.

There's nothing for a graduate of one of the high schools or the local state university to stay in Bellingham for, so they don't. The population has skewed significantly older in the four years I've lived here, probably because it's possible to sell the suburban manse outside Seattle for a ridiculous sum and pay cash for a nice little house on a quiet street.

About the only way Bellingham could have a future (to me, anyway) would be to embrace the idea of being a commuter suburb. Except the traffic on I-5 is terrible once you get past Marysville, and train service is, frankly, a joke (though more the fault of BNSF Railway than Amtrak).

I'm hoping I might finally have found a way out. I'll let you know.

__Orin

Anonymous said...

Another great piece. Thankfully Livingston doesn't have a CVS, the local pharmacists and staff know our names and we don't have a single chain store downtown. A dozen art galleries and great restaurants, but the McDonalds and Arby's are outside of town. All that said, I can't wait to visit your island again in Oct with my fellow Parrotheads.

Bob from Livingston Montana

dennis cleveland said...

That was good Michael...very good

Conchscooter said...

Thanks. I spend too much time walking Cheyenne imagining what's possible.
Up next: how they screwed up the boulevard. The $45 million renovation of the main road into town has left us some profoundly weird quirks! OMG! Next week I hope.