Somewhere shortly after the U.S. Navy shuttered most of its Key West base in 1974, Key West gave up on being a small, family-friendly, working and military town. Four decades later, it’s time we asked: Can real people live in Key West?
The island economy flat lined in 1974, when the military pulled tens of thousands of sailors, families and staff off the island. By 1977, Duval was a ghost town, filled with “hard core bums and wandering youth,” who came like a seasonal tsunami each winter, sleeping on the beaches and in abandoned buildings and driving an escalation of petty crime.
“We had no place to go but up,” then-Mayor Sonny McCoy told the Washington Post in 1977. “About 80 per cent of the downtown stores were vacant. As mayor, I wanted to get the public and private sectors together. It had been a dream since I graduated from college. It was a matter of leverage. One building would have no effect. We wanted to really do something and a cooperative effort for a visual impact can make a difference. … (the facelift resulted from) Miami and Key West brains and money, although numerous new Duval Street businesses have been the brainchildren of innovative non-Key-Westers.”
Key West was delighted to welcome the right kind of Yankees to the island. Realtor Clay McDaniels told the Post in 1977 that “the new breed of Key Westers are affluent people of taste. … Word got around in metropolitan New York that there were a lot of cute conch houses for sale in Key West. People began to trickle down from Manhattan, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts. … It was a Navy honky-tonk community until four years ago. The Navy overwhelmed the downtown area and discouraged retirement and professional people.”
In 1982, three years after the first Fantasy Fest in 1979, the New York Times called Key West “one of the last outposts to welcome drifters and ‘hippies’.” And, almost as an afterthought, the Times noted: “there is a large influx of sun-seeking tourists.”
Can real people live in Key West? No.
It made so much sense at the time: Entice well-to-do off-islanders through a combination of tropical magic and the promise of holding one’s own piece of paradise — for a day, for a week, for a season, forever. Clean up the streets; fix the houses and businesses; run off the riffraff; build hotels, inns and cute B&Bs; and, create things to do for those new residents and tourists.
If we collectively asked what the unintended consequences might be to selling our homes to the highest bidders or welcoming thousands of tourists to a space-and-resources challenged location, I could find no record. Humans being humans, someone must have asked with significant distress: “Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, what are you thinking?”
We made few, if any, provisions for growing and sustaining a middle class that could live in Key West and raise families. We used magical thinking as we assumed an endless stream of bartenders, wait staff, greeters, retail clerks, administrative assistants, garbage collectors, lawyers, doctors, nurses and executive directors of this-and-that. We gave over thousands of cottages and boarded-up buildings to newcomers and built out New Town and Key Haven, without a companion plan to ensure local families and service staff weren’t left to scrounge for the leavings.
Key West is a lovely renovation with a spiderweb of salt spalling as its foundation. Beneath the Key West mystique of our white picket fences, manicured lots, art galleries, restaurants, theater venues, water sports and walking tours lies a particularly ugly truth. Real people cannot live in Key West anymore.
And, before anyone gets too huffy about whether they’re “real people,” a quick definition: I am not a “real people.”
Real people who live in Key West are terrified their landlords will sell the houses and they’ll be on the street. Real people do not have a portfolio, a financial adviser and likely not much of a savings account. Real people are frantic they’ll lose their jobs and not make the mortgage payment and have no place for their kids to live. It takes but a few minutes on social media or eavesdropping on a conversation to understand the plight of Key West’s real people.
Marvelous things came from those decisions in the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps not even the most prescient could have prevented today’s hollowed core. It’s been a wondrous ride, especially for those who hopped on in the first decade or two. But, without Key West’s real people, the end of that ride will be not long in coming.