Saturday, April 18, 2020

Post Pandemic

Election year writ large is hovering over the coronavirus decisions our national leaders make but in smaller print locally  he election is starting to make itself felt as community leaders look to ending coronavirus restrictions.
The Citizen is jumping into the fray feet first with some interesting interviews on the subject even to myself who neither lives nor votes in the city itself. The big question is what improvements can be made in the Keys when the drive to attract visitors starts up again? That this is also an election year and there are two very different candidates offering visions of the future make it a bit more interesting.
Add to that an interview with the Spottswood empire of tourist attractions and hotels and suddenly the coronavirus could be a vehicle for bringing good things o the Keys. Maybe.
Here's the thing: if you feel you can charge fifty dollars a day to park a car downtown are you attracting visitors who pop into the five dollar stores to buy dustcatchers made in the Far East? Welcome to Key West where we propose to fleece you as fast and as efficiently as we can. if you are off a cruise ship by all means buy plastic knick knacks before returning to the ship's buffet table but if you plan to stay in the city plan on a  four hundred dollar a night hotel, hopefully with free parking.
The Spottswood interview revealed  a desire to attract more upscale visitors interested less in pirates and wenching and more in the real history and culture of Key West. There was mention in the interview of switching the direction of advertising away from Key West as a drinking hole and more toward the city as a repository of history art and culture. On the face of it that doesn't sound bad but I dare say we local yokels will have to be supplied with a  clothing allowance to bring us up to the standards of the nouveau riche art hunters who will be sauntering around town looking for local color. 
On the other hand the man who owns Ricks Bar and who has dabbled in politics before,  running for city commission and voting blithely on ordinances affecting downtown businesses is not recusing himself from this debate as election year looms. Mark Rossi is challenging the mayor for her seat and he told the newspaper he has no qualms about raggedy drinking tourism. He wants more with no changes.
Mayor Teri Johnston hasn't had enough of the coronavirus mess and wants another term in office and she told the Citizen she wants the city to think of a bight new future after the pandemic goes away. Everything should be questioned and evaluated in her narrative, cruise ships, local quality of life and the quality of tourism. If there is another and better way she wants to find it, similar to the Spottswoods' vision.
But then in the same article there is the cold wet blanket laid over the whole discussion by the Chamber of Commerce, the union representing business owners in the city. That narrative can be abbreviated to the thought that if there were another way it would have been found already. Which indeed makes sense but it also reveals the uncomfortable truth that no one seems to much like the city Key West has become but they see no alternative to advertising a drinking town with a  tourist problem. 
People like me who come to Key West to live here tend to go through an arc of appreciation, tedium and irritation, and those of you who think you want to live here should pay attention to the emotions of those who have gone before. Key Wrest is a town that grabs you by the throat if it grabs you at all. For some it is exactly what they see, an overpriced under served irritation under a hot humid blanket of unrelenting sunshine. For others it is the answer to a lifetime search for meaning. For my wife and I it was the closest we could get to the offbeat town we had lived in on the West Coast, only with much more sunshine than cold damp Santa Cruz. California's coastal fog was dreadful for her arthritis (and my moods). Key West offered us jobs pensions and warm water swimming. But for many people who choose to settle here it is an escape from suburban tedium.
Over time quirky Key West becomes your normal and the irritations of life close in. Gentrification takes away the parts that attracted you here. You can't sustain a bohemian lifestyle when cheap rent amounts to $2500 a month. In a town fueled by low paid hospitality jobs you need three to pay the bills which leaves no time to sit on the beach or grow out your hair and seduce bored tourist maidens. Your work schedule is tight and sleep is at a premium. Fall into the belief that life here is like a vacation and you drink yourself out of work, out of your hovel and back to life Up North. A hurricane evacuation or a coronavirus lock down will have the same effect.
If you do hang on and get a reputation for reliability, and build up a network of friends who can turn you onto cheap rentals, useful side jobs and support in times of need you can live a good life, always on the razor's edge of course but that is situation normal around here.  But the hard part to accept when you look back over the course of twenty or more years, is that Key West is no longer what it was. At whatever stage of bohemian unraveling the city found itself  when you arrived, by now the quirk factor has slipped and your neighbors drive nice cars and wear name brand clothes and are proud of it.
Then you become the irritating nattering voice of the past telling anyone who will listen how great Key West "used to be" which annoys the hell out of your listeners who are enjoying their own acceptable levels of quirk as they have arrived only recently. And so, isolated and disgruntled you pack your bags and go to live in the mountains of Western North Carolina or the southern deserts of California among others.
The idea that Key West become a center of Art and History sounds enticing especially when the people interviewed suggest the art could be viewed online and shipped thus reducing the local workforce. In this town showing up on time - sober - rates you a managerial position no matter how unqualified. Coronavirus may have had the unintended effect of teaching us all how dispensable our workplaces are. A brave new world faces the least educated among us. If drinking is no longer the main reason to visit Key West hippy bar tenders with tall stories and local status are going to be much less in demand than smooth mixologists armed with knowledge and suave dress suits.
If you want a  better class of tourist you are going to need a better class of employee. Better paid, better trained, more educated. They will expect to be housed properly and that alone will be interesting. Key West can't retain people in part because there is no future here unless you are content renting a dump.
I have my doubts anything will change as the forces of reaction in this town are powerful and that is a universal rule, fortified here by success. Key West makes a few people a great deal of money and bearing in mind coronavirus shut downs are temporary the business leaders making money from the low grade tourism will demand more of the same. How do you tell a  city that makes three million dollars directly from cruise ships that those same ships are a cultural blight? Smaller ships? Fewer and more discerning travelers? All that in the wake of a coronavirus economic depression? How likely does that sound?
I have been extremely fortunate during my time in Key West, with my wife and I enjoying great jobs, real health insurance, good friends and the perfect climate, but we too reminisce fondly about the characters, the places, the attitudes that permeated this town decades ago. We don't drink (much) and we don't fish (at all) so retirement here doesn't present too many challenges. After my accident I spent a lot of time lying in bed wondering how best to use the time left. Meeting death face to face will do that and I determined that before I die I need to fulfill one more challenge and I can't do that resting on my laurels here even equipped with pensions and Medicare like the generation that went before us.
I very much doubt Key West can alter it's economic trajectory, coronavirus notwithstanding, and if it does switch to present a  more cultured offering to the world,  the working people who will want to live here will have to change too. I have absolutely no idea how to rate or value  any of it. I feel encouraged that the discussion is taking place and a real choice faces city voters this November between more of the same, or a potential struggle to change. Stay the course of grumbling, shoddy service, non conformity bubbling with rebelliousness or take a chance on more gentrification, fewer tourists and a cleaner quieter town. Take a trip to Naples up the west coast and ask yourself if a power grab by the wealthy yields a town you want to live in. My only question is will I want to come back and live on a boat here after my van adventure is over or will we have to find another quirky little town fighting gentrification under the same warm southern sun? The next election will be very revealing.