I touched a nerve with last week’s column about living in Key West.
“Key West is a lovely renovation,” I wrote, “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 and water sports lies a particularly ugly truth. Real people cannot live in Key West anymore.“
Dozens of Key West locals, snowbirds and visitors shared their stories online and social media. These weren’t angry screeds filled with political invective, finger-pointing or clueless entitlement. They were, instead, heart-breakingly personal, capturing a resigned acceptance of why things changed; an understanding that, yes, change was inevitable; and ending with a dusting of that Key West magic that reminds us we love this island, warts and all.
I wonder sometimes if the island’s political and economic leadership hears much from people without commas and titles after their names. Those folks (I call them Comma People) can always get the ear of an elected or appointed leader. Comma People have political and economic clout; they run businesses, organizations, boards and such. In the absence of the clout that comes with an actual title, they know how to stir up things on social media, organize for a cause or lead a grassroots effort.
That’s no criticism of Comma People. I’ve pretty much always had a comma and a title after my name. Comma People get things done. They are the “they” we’re always asking to lead us, do something, fix something. You know, “they” ought to do such-and-so. Comma People talk to other Comma People. A lot.
Sometimes that becomes an echo chamber where the voices of regular folks don’t hold much sway. They likely don’t hear much from long-time visitors who silently stop coming to Key West because they can no longer afford it. It’s unlikely they hear directly from hundreds of workers who are losing their apartments, but they most certainly do hear from potential new hires who turn down job offers because there’s no where to live — affordable or otherwise. Even though I’ll bet many Comma People know how bad things are, they are perplexed over solutions, if, indeed, there are solutions — other than wait to crash and burn, a la 1970s, and then re-build.
Comma People, elected officials, chambers, guilds, real estate and business owners — and, yes, columnists — have to work hard to hear the voices of regular people. That’s why the responses to last week’s column are worth a listening.
Living in Key West, say locals and visitors, is tough
I’ll share a few to make this point: Unless Key West crafts and executes a vision for its future that centers wholly on rebuilding the island’s middle class; retaining and supporting the people who make things and make things run; and insisting that the island’s families and permanent residents are the cornerstones of our quality of life, we can kiss farewell the pretense we are a One Human Family paradise where all are welcome, except the jerks.
“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.”
“It has been a marvelous life. I am a real person. One of the adventurous 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. … As a Hemingway fan I knew Key West was at the end of the road. In the late ’70s every hippy and his brother put on a tool belt and remodeled our way out of affordable housing. … 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 adventurous dreamers.“
“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.“
“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… 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.“
“Having watched what has happened to hotel room rates, a trip to KW has definitely become a luxury. 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.”
“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.“
Not everyone shares my concerns about the hollowing out of Key West’s middle class. One commenter called me a “Debbie Downer” and another suggested anyone who worked hard and built up a portfolio could easily live in Key West.
I remain optimistic. If we heed the voices of those determined to hold Key West together, we will find a good place without first having to crash and burn.