The Key West Mystique

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Live in Key West

Can real people live in Key West? The end of a 40-year renovation

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

02/07/2022

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.”

1953 Key West House
Photo taken by the Property Appraiser’s office c1965. House built in 1953.

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.

57 Comments

  1. John Motto

    We moved to KW in 1949 with my father and his business associate building Logan’s Lobster House. I was 5 at the time and graduated in 1962 from KWHS. We lived in several rental houses before getting into George Allen apartments in unit B-10 for $35 a month. I got married at 17 and left KW that day for Los Angeles. We have been back many times with the last time 2017 for my 55 HS reunion. After being kind of disappointed with almost everything I told my wife that it would be our last visit. Sorry to see what has happened to the Island but everything usually changes.

    Reply
  2. Bblue

    I lived there for 38 years watch Key West government make bad decisions in the early 80s giving out WAY to many short term rentals and guests house permits…it change everything ,my neighborhood on Whitehead st became all vacation rentals no where part constant revolving party people..I was lucky to buy a house for 65 grand 1981….sold it in 1991 and it just sold for 1.2 million..the billionaires are running out the millionaires..to bad

    Reply
  3. Rita

    I love Key West. We went there summer 2021. Everybody there (workers, staff, even locals we spoke to) were super nice, not one person was negative. Everyone was so lovely and happy. But I do understand how the pricing/cost of living would make it impossible for the average family to live there. Who can afford all of those housing/food pricing!

    Reply
  4. Herman

    My family and I lived in Kwest from 1973 until 1981 while I was in the USN. These were some of the happiest times for us. We have returned every year since but can stay on base. We can’t afford anything in town. We dreamed of retiring there. The last couple of visits have been really sad because the Island we knew does not exist now. Some major changes will have to be made to make it livable for common people again.

    Reply
  5. Pete

    Linda thank you for this very informative article. My wife and I are teachers from up North so I guess we could be considered “real people”. We have been to your beautiful island several times while staying in Marathon and have often talked about retiring in KW but unfortunately your article has opened up our eyes to the reality of things. We’re still 10 or so years away from retiring but I unfortunately don’t see things turning around. We’ll still visit from time to time!

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Don’t toss out that dream just yet. Key West has an uncanny knack for righting itself when things get too weird. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Joe

    I started going to the keys in the late 70″s. I could stay at the Holiday Inn on Marathon have a 2 tank dive during lobster season included for $39.00 a night. I now live in Texas and went to Fort Myers in July and took the ferry to KW. It was a Tuesday ans people were elbow to elbow everywhere you went with no cruise ships in. I won’t be gong back

    Reply
    • Debra

      Debra, a KW visit has been on my “to do” bucket list for quite some time. KW will remain on the “list” as the excessively high lodging costs don’t fit my needs nor budget. Pricey lodging expenses are like cutting your nose off your face. Everybody knows what to do with a kicking cow except the person who has it.

      Reply
    • Jay

      Thank god there were no cruise ships in , the absolutely destroy the fragile eco-system surrounding key west harbor. They destroy habitat for a vast array of marine life , this has been an issue for a long time.

      Elbow to elbow? Great! The locals throughout the keys heavily depend on situations like this , the people who work here can virtually not afford to live here anymore. As rent prices rapidly increase , so does the unavailability of affordable homes for family’s to buy. Our sense of community keys-wide is being taken as wealthy “out of towners” snatch up property as soon as it becomes available and turns it into a vacation rental. In a lot of cases throughout the keys , there are more vacation rentals on any given neighborhood street than actual locals.

      Reply
  7. Cap’n Billy

    Sadly all this gimcrack glitz was inevitable — the place was just too beautiful and too small.
    The highway came in ‘38. Hemingway left for Cuba. The war came … and ended in ‘45. Capt Tony came, when? ‘48? Winter “visitors” trickled in. The Cuban Crisis forced upgrades to Boca Chica NAS and KW submarine base. The hippies came, circa ‘70. Jimmy came in ‘72. The Navy Base closed after 150 years in ‘73. Tourism extrapolated itself. Pritam Singh. Mariel Madness, ‘80. New Bridges, 48” waterline, cable TV, ‘84.
    In 1985 Calvin Klein paid $985,000.00 US$ for a conch house on Eaton Street, and that was the tipping point. Yep, you could look it up.
    And so it goes….
    After 40 years, I left in ‘98. Long Live The Bubbas. Sayonara.

    Reply
  8. Bill

    My wife and I retired to Key West in 2013. We were able to purchase a lower end condo in the real estate crash of 2008. We thought it would be a great place to retire. We were naive. We are working class people and we felt we just didn’t fit in. It was hard to make friends as there aren’t a lot of middle class families like us and we didn’t have the money for a boat or attend all the functions of the “prominent ” locals. There are a lot of younger single and transient people. We became concerned about the health care in Key West. It’s not a place if you have health problems or have a serious accident. We moved to North Carolina and now enjoy being around normal people. Only thing I miss about Key West is the weather from October to May, happy hour, and riding a scooter

    Reply
  9. Daniel W

    Covid closed off a lot tropical locations to American travelers.

    They closed the Keys off for a period. This forced many of the skilled workforce to leave.

    Keys have no other industry other than tourism.

    If you owned a 1 bed/bath why would you rent it for $1100 a month when you could get $500 a day.

    Key west right now is 1849 sitters mill. If you have work ethic, intelligence to adapt, and willingness to take you’ll be fine. Own and live on a boat you’ll make bank.

    Reply
    • Dawn

      My first visit to key west was outer!!!!!!👍💜😁😘

      Reply
    • DLTJ

      We are old Key Wester’s “conch” , we have family still living there and we do visit, but it is very sad how the true island feel has vanished from the island. The article reads can real people live in Key West???? Not the true bloods which is ashamed because they are the ones and old families who had made the island what it was!!

      Reply
  10. Natasha

    Its one of my favourite places and we had our wedding there 20 years ago. I had so many plans to be there, this year on our 20th anniversary but we simply cant afford it. The nightly hotel rents are just too high right now. I am not sure if its Covid or if this is it now. I am sad at the thought that we cant afford to visit now.

    Reply
    • Jaemarie

      Hey Natasha.
      Don’t give up on Keywest. If you try and book around Marathon you can find some deals, then just take the beautiful 30 minute drive to the lower keys for your total enjoyment. My husband was born nd raised there and I’ve been going down since I was 19, I’m 55 now and just bought a 3/2 retirement home, not for renting but for the true legacy of keeping the keys in our family. True Conchs didn’t come from up north, we were raised there and know it is a gem for total relaxation, culture, food and promise. Hope you go and just enjoy.

      Reply
  11. John

    Our good friends initially visited Key West in 1992. They told us we had to go. We did and loved it. In 1994 they purchased their home in Old Town. For the next 25 years we were there several times a year for weeks to a month at a time. We did rent a sweet little Bahama Village cottage for a month in 2018 for $4000. It’s now $8000. Our friends have moved to the Caribbean and while we love their new home Key West has so many memories! We still try to visit at least once a year; April 27-May 11! Our regular home is a beach town in Delaware and through the years it has suffered from the influx of fast paced, VERY affluent city folks. To quote the band Eagles. Call some place Paradise, kiss it goodbye.

    Reply
    • Joyce Roy

      Who in this economy could ever afford $8000.00 a month rent. Dream your own dream. Wake up and smell the coffee Eunice.

      Reply
  12. SixGenFam

    As a conch family, with generations buried in the local graveyard and my whole life here, we have to leave kw. There’s no potential for security anymore. The only other average conchs my age I know who are planning to stay have housing assistance. They can only stay because of govt assistance that I’ll never qualify for. And the number of homes available to people with housing assistance is very limited. The only others I know that can stay are inheritors. Kids who’s parents owned nice homes or businesses on Duval etc and they were blessed with the hand me downs.
    Thing is we have way too many tourists on average here now and nobody will be here to serve them. And beyond the frivolous ways of serving them, (drinks, food and clean rooms) what of the safety and community? Nurses, teachers, cops.. None of them qualify for the affordable housing income restrictions. They never fit the bracket, but they barely make enough to pay market rents. Without a properly staffed hospital, how is it safe to host thousands of tourists?
    We always say “well now who’s going to clean your rooms??” as if only housecleaning are being run out of town. But no, it’s the entire foundation of what makes a city run, and it’s crumbling, rapidly.

    Reply
  13. Randy

    5 years in the 80’s and now 3 years ; getting ready to leave again , it’s still awesome, But , Nothing at all like it used to be . The sunsets and weather still here but it has changed so much hence losing it’s real charm all together .

    Reply
    • Roz Clark

      My heart is breaking as I face the reality of what I have tried to push to the back of my mind.
      I have been visiting Key West since the early 80’s. I am part of what you might call “middle class”. Until recent years, I could afford to stay at beach front hotels. No longer! But I am blessed. I have a sister in Sugarloaf, and a daughter in Key West where I can stay. Also, I know a fantastic landlord who rents a room and bath to family friends, at an affordable rate. He is not out to gouge anyone. Without those resources, Key West B&B would not be affordable to me. That would be crushing to me. I relish the Key West atmosphere and spending time with my family there — especially my Conch Granddaughter. The same big question goes through my mind as has been expressed by the author and commenters: where is affordable housing for those who service the tourists, and the community at large? How long will my daughter be able to make her home there?

      Reply
  14. Kathie

    This goes the same for Long Beach Island in New Jersey. A house just went under contract fir $3.2 M and they will tear it down to build another one. Happening every day. The smallest cottages are close to a million.

    Reply
  15. Donna

    We used to come to Key West a minimum of once a year and occasionally twice a year, but we no longer can afford the hotels at $300-$600 a night and the house rentals have all had to go to monthly for $4,000-$10,000 a month. These are no longer reachable on a retired couples income. I am very sad that when I thought I could come more often, I can no longer come at all.

    Reply
  16. Sammy

    My first visit was 20+ years ago, like so many others, I fell in-love with this little, beautiful Island called, Key West. My husband and I have traveled to KW, yearly, ever since, sometimes two or three visits a year. I love the Island much more than my husband. He simply says, when I beg and plead to move there, “I can’t live where I’d have to struggle for money”. As prices began to rise, I stopped bringing up the subject. I now know it will never happen. I narrowed my visits to twice a year, Pride week in June and I do The Smart Ride in November. I canceled June, this year. It breaks my heart but, I refuse to pay so much for a nightly bed and bathroom. At first, I wanted to live there because of the warm breezes, the high energy and the beautiful tropical landscapes. After meeting and friending many locals, they became the reason I wanted to live there. Some are imports, some born and raised on the Island. But, they are all one thing, real, loving people. I worry about them constantly. I couldn’t imagine rent going from $3,000 a month to over $7,000 a month! To inflict such stress and hardship on another person, out of greed, is just wrong. My friends have made a life on that island, they have planted deep roots. I will miss carrying the Pride flag down Duval. I will miss that feeling of excitement as the plane lands in paradise. I’ll continue to visit as much as I can until the day my friends are no longer there to welcome me to their Island.

    Reply
    • Another worker gone....

      I lived in Key West for 32 years… Starting by living on a sailboat anchored behind Christmas tree Island. Enjoyed life before cruise ships, packed tour buses, the ferry. Worked on snorkel boats, fishing boats… eventually working for MCSO as a Detention Deputy… realised I needed a plan… steady paycheck, retirement. I was never able to afford a house as a single person. Lost my rental after living there for 17 years. I was given 30 days to move. Having two large dogs left me no option. I had to leave Key West the place I called home for 32 years… And yes. I made too much money for affordable housing yet not enough to live on… Ironically most of my friends with houses are cashing out and moving elsewhere too.

      Reply
      • Gail

        Yes, this.
        Key West is a dog friendly town unless you need to rent to live here!

        Reply
  17. Vicki

    Heck, I an in the vast expanse between “real” & “not real”and I’m not sure I can realistically even VISIT my favorite place. 😞

    Reply
  18. Joey conchfield

    Truth!! We packed it in Oct 21 after a life time in key west. It’s terrible greed driven place now.

    Reply
  19. Tanya Litz

    As an author you could not have picked a way to describe KW than having “spalling as it’s foundation”…deterioration from the inside out, often found and realized too late to repair.

    Reply
  20. BobbyB

    It has been a marvelous life. I am a real person. One of the adventureious hippies who hitchhiked to the end of the road in 1972. The gas station map I carried carefully folded in my pocket did not include Key West. The map showed a series of dots extending southwest from Miami. In the center of these small islands depicted was one notation, Marathon Country Club. That was all. As a Hemingway fan I knew Key West was at the end of the road.
    In the late 70’s every hippy and his brother put on a tool belt and remodeled our way out of affordable housing.
    The Key West Business Guilde formed and advertising put a large dot on the map.
    Key West opened to the world.
    Learning to adapt to change allowed myself to enjoy 50 good years of prosperity on the Island I love and loves me.
    As it has been it will be. Affordable housing is all that will save the next generation of adventureious dreamers.

    Reply
    • Raymond

      The “riffraff” as you say, were welcome! That was the Conch way, we didn’t care who you were, what you had or where you came from! That’s what’s been lost, our heritage! What an awful statement to write!

      Reply
  21. Jessica

    same in New Orleans, since Katrina

    Reply
  22. Pat benson

    Heartbreaking for sure. I moved here to be with real people but now they are being forced out. Not happy anymore.

    Reply
  23. Herbert Baumann

    I’m in real estate up North and have been escaping the cold each winter for 3-7 weeks each year with 3 or 4 additional trips in the rest of the year. I have done this for 30 years and have seen not only the growth, development and re-development, which has forced out “real people” but the oppressive codes, rules and laws that have followed. I have never chosen to buy here as I know the problems associated with ownership (I own and manage thousands of rentals back home) and have chosen to rent each time, feeding the economy with stays either at Simonton Court for a week or less or rent a small conch house. My cost of renting a house for 3-7 weeks has doubled in the past 5 years. And the charm, quaintness, permissive, free-spirited attitude has given way to codes, rules, restrictions and only a smattering of authentic visitors and locals.

    I will miss Key West!

    Reply
  24. Julia

    Just moved to Key West in the last few years and I already know. I have no chance to stay long term. I’m a nurse and we don’t get paid well by the hospital. I work 2 jobs and I’m getting too old to do this for long. Looking for where I might be able to settle and in the meantime enjoying and building relationships with those in Key West that are Not the elite.

    Reply
  25. Donna

    My hippie family moved to Key West, and I started elementary school in 1973. Now following this transition I experienced, there are not many of the original locals that can live here anymore. The very essence of our paradise has been devastated. It’s not the same ” home sweet home” now.

    Reply
  26. Jessica

    You said it! They are pushing us real people out. Then they will have to start getting jobs to do what is real people do.

    Reply
  27. ed cabaniss

    Yep, here at Holden Beach too.

    Reply
  28. kwhome

    Real people live in every single home, condo and apartment. Each day of your life you wake up and make decisions that will effect the rest of your life. You acquire portfolios, investments and savings accounts by making the decision early in your adult life and continue to slowly build it through out. NOBODY should fear losing their job in this current environment, ever single business is begging for employees

    Reply
    • Vicki

      I think you are missing the point of the article.

      Reply
    • Kw local

      Real people can’t afford a 10k minimum move in fee to rent a place. (If they can even find one) I don’t think you understand what you’re saying.

      Reply
    • Fredric

      It’s wonderful to see how much you have it together and how many of your decisions have been right and how wonderful your life is going but I don’t even think you read the article that is such an elitist view . you made better decisions than other’s and are doing well so just forget about the people that may have made the wrong choice here or there or they don’t have the ability that you might have had to overcome obstacles in life. Karma is real my friend. I know I could never get a real answer but I sure would like to know with all your right decisions how happy is your life it’d be very interesting to see since you clearly are better than everybody else by everybody else I mean us real people good luck with your worship of money and good luck with that attitude I hope it brings you happiness and peace.

      Reply
  29. Faith Robinson

    People walk by our marina at hogfish all the time and awe at the fact that we live on a sailboat with children, and guess at how adventurous our lifestyle is and while i must say its more so then many others. Live aboard is one of the only ways we could afford to live in the key west area and even then its still costs way more then it would if we lived in north Florida. But living in our home is so important to us. The community, the ocean, our friends we grew up with. I hate to think about leaving but think of what we could offer i children else where!

    Reply
    • Frank

      Faith, can I ask what it cost to rent a slip there? Our dream has always been to bring our boat down south and live on it bouncing between Florida and the Bahama’s but I’m afraid that even renting a slip there is getting so crazy that our dream may not happen.

      Reply
      • Kw local

        It depends on if you want to live in a marina resembling the projects “city marina,” or some where with a safer friendlier environment siyc/ SIMV, the later option starts at 2k / month for a 34’slip.

        Reply
        • Claude Bazo

          Well under your white picket fences your manicured lawns,theaters,art galleries etc.is the relentless enemy called the ocean that has been eating away at the foundation of paradise,so to my fellow conchs we lived key west at it’s best,the great influx of from points north will soon be standing in fron of the wooden shack that they paid 2 million dollars for wondering what do we do now Waldo

          Reply
  30. Bruce

    “… the unintended consequences might be to selling our homes to the highest bidders or welcoming thousands of tourists to [KW]? We’re still not asking that question today, as the airport, bars and restaurants are enlarged.,

    Reply
  31. Wayne Faulkner

    It is so sad I spent a lot of time there when I worked at the Miami Herald Much of that was during the years just before the Navy left It was cheap, even for a guy in his 20s I looked at a cottage I could have had for $47,000* [*I fell through the front porch at the showing]Then I came back after i moved north and became more affluent to experience Key West as gay person in the early 80s Property was expensive then, but small houses that needed work were still relatively affordable But the town I loved is out of sight for me, and I,m not a real person either

    Reply
  32. Mickey Babcock

    I’m sorry to learn this is happening in key west. It has also happened in jackson hole.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Heartbreaking for both of us.

      Reply
      • John Grause

        The loss of Truman Annex to greedy developers was huge tragedy. Navy offered the entire base to the City and they allowed greed to ruin an opportunity. Saddest decision ever.

        Reply
      • Ray Warren

        We can only go forward. It is a difficult issue, made more difficult by ROGO rules. If we are to be limited in capacity we have to find a way to freeze the conversion of full time homes to seasonal ones.

        Let the part timers and short term renters bid on their share. But keep that “share”of the available stock from growing.

        Reply
      • Todd Alexander

        Having watched what has happened to hotel room rates, a trip to KW has definately become a luxuary. As someone who loves Key West, I find myself relying on the creativity and flexibility of the real people. Seems like after the current ride ends, there will once again be a crash and hard times. Hoping that the next revival is quick and more for real people than just the rich. Until then, my island getaways will be Marathon or other more affordable destinations with maybe a day trip to KW.

        Reply
        • Trisha

          Marathon use to be alot cheaper then key west in the last 10 years marathon has gotten just as expensive

          Reply
      • Larry

        So sadly true and it gets to me all the time. Our children grew up there, 6 of our grandkids are Conchs. We were part of the machine that kept great service moving forward in KW and the Lower Keys. We fly our Conch Republic flag in our front yard, but none of us live there anymore.

        Reply
        • Paul

          Moved there fall 2021. Was very happy for a while. Two great paying hotel jobs level entry into a new career endeavor. Was successful professionally. Failed with finding my little 1 bedroom dream apartment even efficiency on the island.
          HOUSING IS CUT THROAT. I left happily. In Jan 2022 due to constant whoever gets the money there first gets the apartment… Mentality. Two landlords rented out apartments under my feet even with written agreements because I needed 48 hours to collect my rent first last and security over $4500 just to get in the door. And that’s an attic apartment you smack your head off every time you go to the kitchen sink or bathroom. BYE KEY WEST. GOOD RIDDENS.

          Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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