I was moved to write this essay by the title of a recent National Geographic Traveler Magazine. They selected twenty places for these irritatingly repetitive "bucket lists" that are so popular. All sorts of places were mentioned, including Bermuda, Winnipeg, The Philippines and San Diego and Glasgow (no really!) as well as Poland and Botswana. Lots of neat places but of the Florida Keys not a peep. Mind you, there never is in any of these lists. Places to retire, small towns, resorts,you name it Key West is never listed among them. Ever.
I have to say it bothers me and not because I think Key West should be on one of those many over listed lists. What bothers me is that I can see why Key West is slipping out of the rankings of cute desirable places to visit and hang out in. On the one hand you could argue that's a good thing, staying out of the limelight, but Key West's fame has already spread far and wide and nowadays it is attracting it seems to me the wrong kind of people to keep the community vibrant. A not untypical petulant comment posted in the Citizen's Voice:
So the question then becomes: do you want to live, even if you can afford to live here, in a small tight town with people like that? Cruel, tone deaf, rejectionist elitist- call it what you will, perhaps even severely practical, the problem is that it doesn't allow a town to pull together and be creative and without creativity you end up dead. The mayor has had one bee in his bonnet for a long time and it's coming together the new twenty million dollar city hall. He absolutely wanted it built at the old Glynn Archer School on White Street and there it is, coming together behind the grand facade of the school, a building properly imposing as a seat of government. Aside from that it is practical, in a good location with easy access while not cluttering up Old Town and lots of parking, not too far from the Police Department, the other major organ of city government. The mealy mouthed angry little people call it too expensive but it will do the job and look good, its form of artistry worthy of a city that promotes itself as creative. And with less and less reason to think of itself as a hib for creative people.
One big issue for people who don't have enough money is the cost of housing. The military built housing on what could have been a public park decades ago and then decided they decided to abandon the housing and give it to the city. The city has the opportunity to buy the housing and has decided to hold a referendum on whether or not to spend $55 million dollars to buy the property whose houses currently rent for $2400, affordable perhaps in some other universe. The thing is the developers bought the land a few years ago for $35 million and half the city is wondering why they get a twenty million widnfall for nothing from the city.
Like everything that happens in this city the deal has an opaque quality that would make Machiavelli proud. The terms of the deal, the repayment terms the cost of the housing to renters none of it seems very clear. And the referendum is split in two, one to consider the deal the other to authorize the borrowing. One without the other would be an interesting result...Meanwhile life in Peary Court trundles on. This field is where the credit union used to be:
One beacon of light downtown is the Studios At Key West which managed by some miracle to buy the former masonic lodge on Eaton at Simonton. The vast Art Deco style building is being transformed into all sorts of good things for artists and it includes a book store recently opened on the ground floor which merits exploration. The Studios is the kind of non profit that should be nurtured and should flourish in a town with pretensions toward being a desirable community in the 21st century. Key West is relying on the weather which admittedly is brilliant year round but there has to be more of this sort of thing, despite the sour puss attitude shown by some heathens.
For me the measure of the possibility that this city might turn into a cultural hub will be demonstrated by the development plans for Truman Waterfront. Another deed to the city by the Navy here we have 34 essentially virgin acres, cleaned up and ready to be developed by the city. A waterfront gift from the gods. If the Spottswood juggernaut gets its way this will be paved, cemented and sealed as a restaurant, marina, amphitheater, sports fields and soulless center of industry and commerce lightly disguised as pay-as-you-go recreation.
If Key West is to attract young people with talent and old people with souls it needs to do something radically different from the current slide into obscurity as a laughing stock of outmoded urban values and endless pursuit of the easy dollar. Now we hear that Fantasy Fest is losing money for the company that runs the October strip tease on Duval Street, not to mention the money spent by the city for this absurd spectacle. Shops not associated with the week-long bacchanalia report lost sales and somehow the bars and eateries who make money prevail over everyone else's opinion.
I cannot say I view this sort of thing as a substitute for something more appealing though if one wants to seek a middle path between the Conchs that loathe it and the business leaders who push it strenuously I'd say it's easy to ignore if you choose by getting out of town for a week. But if it can't make money then I have no clue why it continues to flounder on as a festival anyone needs to see.
I feel a certain amount of anguish about Key West these days. My life here marches steadily on to retirement in a job I enjoy with an easy commute and a quiet canal with tidal water in my back yard. I have no complaints but I do want to live in a community, a place where the ecosystem matters, where people can make a living and even if the halcyon days of the cookie lady and the Copa and adult movies on Duval are gone there is no reason the city can't restore a sense of wonder to the tired old painted tart Key West has become.