Look, I get it. It’s hard to share “our” island with new folks when we’re gritting our teeth in the traffic jam at the Cow Key Bridge or sprinting through the Green Parrot intersection before the light changes. Why can’t these Key West newcomers — visitors, second home owners, vacation home renters, take your pick — up and go back where they came from? Everything’s changed; things are not like they used to be. Sigh. Go away.
Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey. Must we? Must we yet again drag out that grizzled lament about the wonderful old days? And, whose old days, anyway? Surely not the old days of no dependable water, electric and communications. Surely not the before air conditioning?
You can almost guess whose old days we’re talking about by subtracting 30-40 years from whomever is talking. I posit that the old days for today’s 75-year-old would be the 10 years on either side of 1982-1992, which, if you think about it, are those mythological Key West years of the 1980s and 1990s.
I asked Google why we always think the old days are better. In less than a second she gave me 3.8 billion (yes, billion) answers, all with some version of this: Humans don’t consciously remember uncomfortable things and we tend to burnish our memories.
Sort of like looking at a photograph of a Key West sunset. Few remember being tempest-tossed by the crowd, sweating through their T-shirts, listening to the profanity-laden cursing from the guy who’d been way over-served or smelling the summer sargassum rotting on the beach.
All of which brings me back to this: We have a choice. We can snarl our ways through our island’s challenges or we can figure out the best ways to embrace our Key West newcomers and make it work. I like what a friend wrote to me this week:
Key West newcomers: Can we re-learn our hospitality?
“We’re not going to be able to change the way the world works. People have the right to buy houses and do anything they want with them. But are there ways we can change the nature of things so they aren’t adversarial? We have a great community and maybe rather than fighting the rentals we find ways to encourage both folks renting for a month (or more) or people who buy houses and leave them sit, to participate more in the community. Maybe encourage those who leave the house empty most of the time to spend more time here?
“Also how can we find ways to make people who don’t live here all the time be more connected to the community and want to spend more time each year? It seems to me the biggest loss is the sense of community that we have and if we could somehow encourage that feel or keep that feel that would be much more positive. Maybe nothing would work and maybe this is a silly naive notion – but I was just thinking overall that rather than fighting this influx and change, we find ways to incorporate these folks into the community so we build a sense of connection with them rather than ‘you’re ruining our town’ to help preserve the nature of the community.”
Smart guy, huh? Particularly this part: “… rather than fighting this influx and change, we find ways to incorporate these folks into the community so we build a sense of connection with them…”
Ah, that sense of connection. We’ve long known that people are drawn to the perceived magic of the island — the Key West Mystique. Whether they were born here, vacation here or move in for the long haul, those who love Key West never stray far. It takes pro-active commitment to create that sense of connection that makes a place one’s home. It takes Key West newcomers becoming a member, joining a board, writing a check, showing up to pick up trash, mentoring a student, working backstage.
If we who already call Key West home marginalize our new neighbors, shun our snowbirds or snark at our visitors, we are going to get that attitude back in spades. They already outnumber us and have for decades. Our inhospitable attitudes won’t send them packing. Frankly, they, at best, don’t understand our challenges; at worst, they don’t care and they have little more sense of connection than what they learned from the hotel concierge or the train tour. For those who pass through, we’re simply an interesting pastime.
Let’s stop obsessing over them and, instead, spend our energy integrating these Key West newcomers into the real island life. What harm could possibly come from vacation rental management companies introducing new seasonal renters to their neighbors? Or providing opportunities for local organizations to connect with newcomers and vacation renters for volunteer opportunities while they’re visiting? How about a detailed guidebook to everything “locals know but no one tells visitors”? How about email newsletters to second home owners with news from local organizations, fund-raising fun, theater, arts — even the latest Key West news?
I don’t know who has the time or resources to do all that. I do know, though, that we need to connect locals with newcomers and connect those newcomers to the island. So, I’m going to do my small part. I’ll make a point of supporting the folks who are moving into my neighborhood — and I’m reining in (most of) my snarky comments about visitors.