I have returned after a month away and I am sensing something in the air in Key West. It doesn't take much if you read the newspaper, but more than that there is a ripple of irritation running through town on several fronts. In one were an optimist one could hope that a new wave of political leadership could be coming to town to revitalize a community facing more challenges than it needs. If one weren't an optimist one might think nothing can change Key West's direction towards a muddled, money driven future.
A month away, even if half that time was spent coping with a medical emergency, offers the traveler an opportunity to recalibrate one's view of home town politics. I saw a lot that I liked elsewhere, ideas that could easily be implemented in Key West, and I also faced the questions square on: why isn't Key West a modern environmentally aware town, a place where learning to live within one's social and economic and environmental means? We live so close to nature in these islands you'd think preserving the land, revitalizing coral, dealing sensibly with trash, and taking recycling and composting seriously would be second nature, a requirement for social acceptance. But it's not and when you have moved even briefly among communities with so much less Nature but so much more respect for what they do have, you wonder what is going on here.
I took a walk on Church Street, in Burlington Vermont at the urging of a friend and it was lovely. There was music, small food trucks combined with sidewalk bars and restaurants, lots of benches for people to sit on, in a family friendly atmosphere. The entire street is a pedestrian zone and I compared this to Duval Street and I was shocked. When I visit Duval Street there are no shops that particularly interest me but there is nowhere to sit, nowhere to people watch with or without a drink or a coffee. There are no benches, the few raised flower beds have been rendered unusable as seats and as a result the tourists are left to shuffle up and down, back and forth like zombies.
You simply cannot do this in Key West:
There is a revolt underway in the Keys over the service provided by the hospital, and led by a prominent Conch there is now a call for a boycott of Lower Keys Medical Center, whose CEO, a particularly unpleasant piece of work, has resigned. There are stories swirling around about levels of care that rival the abysmal service my wife got at the hospital in Quebec City when her gall bladder gave out.
Unlike Quebec City where dismal service is accepted, Key West it seems has had enough of the lackluster service from the hospital. Naturally one would like to see the doctors get on board with a demand for change but so far it's the patients complaining. One has to hope things will change for the better. I'm lucky because when I need medical care I can just as easily drive to Fisherman's Hospital in Marathon as I live half way between the two cities.
Housing is driving people crazy too. Land use use rules, height regulations and preservation guidelines are all being twisted and tormented and essentially disregarded in the interests of "affordable housing." I have no faith at all that anyone in charge cares one jot about affordable housing but as long as a developer says wrecking the environment will ease the shortage of affordable housing they can get away with anything. Height restrictions are being eased in Key West and the drive to raise the historic skyline is being done to help increase "affordable housing" and the marionettes on the city commission nod solemnly and vote yes. Developers offer to swap parcels of land, hotel room occupancy and whatever else comes to hand to build large new hotels, two are going up on Stock Island, and in return they promise more affordable housing. Because a quarter million dollar prefabricated house on stilts is now officially "affordable" in Key West.
I hear complaints that the short term rental racket is now spreading to New Town. The city has restrictions on short term rentals to "preserve the integrity of residential neighborhoods." Which is great but it is proving tough to enforce especially with the arrival of AirBnB which undercuts all traditional models of tourist hospitality.
In the past Old Town was the place where visitors wanted to stay but nowadays I understand these kinds of short term party rentals are cropping up in New Town, the part of the city developed in the second half of the 20th century, far removed architecturally from the wooden homes and narrow alleys of 19th century Old Town. When you consider that employee housing has for the past thirty years retreated from Old Town, through New Town to the trailers of Stock Island...
...Then you start to appreciate the trouble that Key West is in. I accept that my desire for a walkable Third Place (LINK) in Key West is my own issue, relatively frivolous in a town already packed with non-discriminating tourists, but worker housing is starting to fall off a cliff. The move in this direction has been here for years, developers bought up Stock Island a decade ago getting ready to transform the island for the tourism economy. And now we are there. The rapprochement with Cuba doesn't help as the ferry service to Havana is planned for Stock Island and the destruction of fishing stocks by climate change, over fishing and reef destruction will justify the departure of the last of the commercial fishermen who retreated to Stock Island when their docks in Key West were sold to the tourist industry.
The revolt against the hospital fills me with hope that things might change, but the big difference I see here is that we lack a University. My belief is that universities bring education, a desire for change, curiosity, all based on an economy driven by a seat of learning. Key West lacks that driver, that force for change and perhaps that's not all bad. Key West is not likely to be driven to social conformity by a herd of fashionable students preaching to the community, but as much as that sort of behavior annoys the adult in me, the side of me that wants a more cohesive thoughtful town to stay planted at the end of the road wants people to take the hospital boycott to a new level. Demand change, build worker housing, clean up Duval. Take care of what we have that's unique, value our history not as tourist myth but as a road map to our future. Make Key West a nicer place to live. It doesn't seem a lot to ask of the people who have made fortunes milking this city for the past half century.