The other day, I came across a photograph of my mother standing on the Key West airport tarmac in one of those quintessential first-time visitor poses, smiling for the camera, roller bag at her feet and those Seward Johnson statues grinning overhead. Welcome to Key West.
First timers do that a lot. Pretend to be oblivious to airport staffers and sheriff’s officers encouraging them to move along, while they dead-stop on the tarmac, taking it all in and grinning like it’s Christmas and they’re five-years-old. I did it a month ago. Five days off the rock and needing that deep breath of Key West air, hot, sticky and tinged with jet fuel. Welcome home.
I call it the Key West Mystique. It’s a collective state of mind, which few can explain, but all understand. It’s the stench of sargassum in July; the ubiquitous hurricane boxes in the corners for six months. It’s the race for a picnic table at Fort Zach almost before dawn on Christmas and the best anchoring spot at the sandbars. It’s palm trees and Royal Poincianas. It’s an impromptu block party in the street in the middle of Covid.
The Key West Mystique is, too, the ceaseless, frequently useless, bickering about who’s on today’s arch-villain list of those who would change the island from its glorious past, whenever that might have been. It’s having to work three jobs to pay the bills and still not be able to buy a place to raise a family.
Key West, as it has always been, is a mash-up of political arguments; escalating frustrations and irritations; confrontations among competing visions and relentlessly unsolvable challenges. And, yet, there’s that ubiquitous resilience that lies at the heart of the Key West Mystique: Do what needs doing with little fanfare other than the occasional celebratory parade or protest to let off some steam and remind us why we live here.
Whether you were born here, first met Key West in 1970 or arrived on vacation today, those who love the island never stray far, because we know that preserving and enhancing that Key West Mystique sustains our island home.
So, how do we do that? Not by demanding a one-size for all approach. Key West is a rollicking, libertarian hotchpotch of proper ladies and gentlemen sidling up with modern-day pirates and ne’er-do-wells. The folks at the yacht clubs, the oh-so-aware political activists and the malingers at the bars are not necessarily of different gene pools. We are, after all, One Human Family — and I don’t write that with tongue in cheek.
We don’t sustain the Key West Mystique by fomenting ideas so far-fetched as to tickle the absurd. I mean, really? A high-speed rail system the length of the Florida Keys? Or making the Overseas Highway four-plus lanes in both directions? Great happy hour banter, but, in the real world, those dogs don’t hunt.
Living in Key West means we agree on four things:
We should be smart citizens: All of us, locals, snowbirds, visitors, should understand the Key West, Monroe County and Florida governmental decisions that shape our quality of life and the economic health of our community. We must work within, around and through today’s chaotic, divisive political realities, not because we like them, but because it’s what we’ve got. Despite my fervent wishes to the contrary, Tallahassee and D.C., as we know them, aren’t going away any time soon.
We should protect the environment: We must improve environmental practices to protect the island, its waters and its wildlife while integrating appropriate growth and development that sustains our future. Love or hate the tourists, we can agree there’s a need for balanced practices that ensure clean water, clean air and a sustainable environment. This cannot be an “I-win-you-lose” competition. We must find common ground.
We should help those who help: Supporting the efforts of local not-for-profits, artists and entertainers and public-private leadership to achieve their goals helps us all succeed and preserves the best of Key West. Show up. You’ll make a difference whether you’re volunteering to grow plants at the Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, writing a check to the MARC House or tipping generously with your locals’ discount.
We should support those who work: We should support local business owners, our workforce and our entrepreneurs so they can develop their potential to succeed and reach their markets. Raise their pay. Support affordable workforce homes. Make it more expensive to be an absentee landlord, including vacation rentals. Reward the efforts of those who would provide or underwrite housing for their employees.
To foster the Key West Mystique, bicker we must for (cliche ahead) the devil is in the details. Worry we will on occasion. Lament when needed the passing of what we thought would never change. And then remember: Those who love Key West will never stray far.