There is a current that runs through Key West that gives status to length of residence. I run as fast as I can from people who interject into a conversation how long they have lived here. I find the implication that living in Key West is the only way to live to be rather too much like navel gazing. There are valid and worthwhile lives being lived all over the place, even in places, dare I say it, that are not strangers to frost and snow and ice that is not cubed in a glass. People like their lives even outside Key West and take joy in work and seasons and the normal accoutrements of suburban living wherever it may be. I have no particular desire to live in the tundra but that doesn't mean everyone has to want tropical scenery in their daily lives.
I like the weather. To me it is what I have always wanted: an endless summer with minor variations and no need for a winter wardrobe. However there is more to living in Key West than the weather (no, really) and Fantasy Fest happens to loom large. These two threads intersect because it has now become fashionable, more even than in past years to make loud noises about how degraded Fantasy Fest has become and how it was never meant to be like this. Well, no shit it didn't start out like this! It was a homegrown festival organized by counter-culture businesspeople who needed to create a source of income in slow season when people were going mad with boredom. Key West is no longer like that, I think its safe to say. So if you can remember way back when, the modern iteration of Fantasy is beneath contempt.
One reason Fantasy Fest is here to stay is that the city has handed over the affair to a private company that markets it and runs it and pays the city for the inconvenience and expense it causes. Beyond that Fantasy Fest is a source of money and lots of it, and if we have to see naked flesh and encourage a certain libertine attitude for a week, well that's just good for business, isn't it?
One of The Market Share Company's largest ongoing accounts is Fantasy Fest Key West. The Market Share Company is contracted by the Monroe County Tourist Development Association to produce and oversee all aspects of the festival. The event, now in its 31st year, was awarded to The Market Share Company in 1990 and now draws upwards of 60,000 spectators, hosting nearly 60 events at Key West bars, restaurants, hotels, attractions and other establishments.
Market Share has promoted the illicit, naughty aspects of Fantasy Fest and this idea that you can come to Key West, strip off and let your inner sprite loose on the city is the modern interpretation of the cheerful costuming and the power to poke fun at the powers in the city that used to be the essence of Fantasy Fest. Naughtiness devolved into raunchiness, a difficult divide to measure and the money keeps rolling in anyway. So now the old families, the Conchs, turn their noses up in disgust (unless the money rolls their way too) and shake their heads at the moral pollution in the little town of which everyone wants to own a piece. Old timers turn their noses up in disgust as they can remember the "good old days" which leaves the supporters of this festival surrounded and hard pressed. Ah yes, the money.
Well this year the money has become a bit of an issue too. Hotels have been accused as usual of being greedy and charging too much for rooms, four hundred dollars they say for one night in a nondescript modern motel four miles from the action on Duval Street...and what makes this worse is that it is also bruited around the city that sky high hotel prices are killing trade. Firstly there are vacancies and parking in Old Town is shockingly easy to find so it seems there could be more people squeezed in on that anecdotal evidence! Secondly the high room prices are sucking up money that could be spent elsewhere in the city according to the business people who say spending is less than usual for the week.
So now we find the forces aligned against Fantasy Fest comprise the Conchs, the old timers and the bar owners and shop keepers, so you'd think it would be curtains, no? Yet it isn't. Why? All I can think is the money stream outweighs all other considerations. No matter what people say or how much they complain about the greed of the hotels or the miserliness of the numerous tour bus visitors who arrive for day trips complete with food and drink in coolers purchased in cheaper climes, the money stream must still be plenty deep enough to keep the carnival alive.
Fantasy Fest in my opinion is a very visible symptom of the very real policy in Key West of whoring the city out for every last available dollar. It's not strictly speaking gentrification because its not just about bringing in the wealthy though they of course have finally figured this is a great place to spend a Connecticut winter. This policy of selling everything of value in the city has only one logical conclusion and when we reach it Fantasy Fest will no doubt shut down, but we aren't there yet.
It's entirely possible the sell out will never reach a conclusion as there are always new people entranced by the qualities of Key West that have made it attractive. It may not be the bohemian retreat it was years ago but let's not forget the rest of America has been moving ever faster toward blandness and conformity spurred on by overblown fears of nefarious terrorism, Key West remains a beacon of alternative hope, dim though it may have become. However this is how the rest of America relieves the tension once a year in this small town, taking their alter egos and parading them around in public:
In some respects Key West reminds me of our (grand)parents, the generation that survived the Great Depression and World War Two. It has been noted that anyone who has suffered misery from deprivation can be marked for life. Key West has suffered deprivation including bankruptcy in the depression and near bankruptcy in the 1960s. It seems to me that in some deep seated way the people raking in the cash are holding their collective breath waiting for the bonanza to fade away and until it does they are determined to make every last dollar they can.
There used to be a debate in Key West about the children and he needs of families. These days there is no pretense that these constituents matter. Truman Waterfront is being built with an eye to outdoor performances and noise problems nearby be damned. I don't know of anyone who thinks massing music and cars and people on the western edge of the lanes of Bahama Village is a good idea but good or not the construction is going ahead. Noise and traffic jams will have to be borne.
The Historic Architectural Review Commission has been approving bizarre modern structures that don't blend with the Old Town neighborhood and we are told it is good for architecture to express the spirit if not the form of the 19th century buildings that form the largest wooden historic district in the United States. The modern structures are hotels, restaurants and mansions all catering to the wealthy class. That this sort of bad planning will kill the nature of Old Town does not seem to matter as long as they get their short term gain. That's why I say its not gentrification but selling out, the process that is underway in Key West.
I believe that if anyone gave a damn about the city's future the time has come to call an end to Fantasy Fest in it's current incarnation. Obviously Key West lives by festivals and gatherings all summer long and Fantasy Fest should be part of that but the rules need to change. This needs to become a fantasy festival, encouraging whimsy and fun and not simple nudity and crass raunchiness, which can be enjoyed privately off the streets.
I have tried to be a good sport about an activity, dressing up or dressing down, that holds no interest for me. But unless something changes radically I doubt Fantasy Fest will get my attention in the future. I doubt Fantasy Fest will miss me either.