The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Dry Tortugas Camping

Small town Key West | Not Disney, not a big city

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.


Pretty much lovers of big cities with their cosmopolitan flair, corporate headquarters and skyscrapers do the sniffy, rolling eyes thing when they’re forced to contemplate life in a small town.

I admit I was delighted to escape every small town in which I unpacked a box. I didn’t want a big city either, so like Goldilocks and her just-right chair, I lived mostly in a big-town-little-city within striking distance of some serious urban congestion. Then I downsized and moved into a town barely bigger than where I grew up.

In so many ways, Key West isn’t a small town. We probably never were, at least not in the classic, Mayberry kind of way. But we’re not a big city either, despite fun things to do, arts, theaters and dining choices. We surely aren’t Disney’s version of Key West though our visitors too often step off curbs, walk in the street middles and wander around on bikes, scooters and golf carts as through those big produce trucks weren’t actually honking at them.

Instead, we have the cheek-by-jowl closeness of houses whose neighbors share their breakfast flavors and domestic squabbles – and hear their toilets flush at bedtime. There’s the dissonance of a dozen different languages and a hundred regional accents competing down Duval Street. We have theater and art galleries, music, five-star restaurants and corner coffee shops, ethnic neighborhoods, festivals and parades. Lots and lots of parades at the drop of a hat and just because.

We have breathtaking wealth juxtaposed against crushing poverty. Jaw dropping real estate prices where 600 square feet and no outdoor space top three-quarters of a million – plus condo fees and wind, flood and property insurance. It’s the idea, as one long-time Key West resident puts it, that the man with whom you’re discussing the relative value of apples at Fausto’s might well have had dinner with the Queen of England the day before.

But just when I’ve convinced myself that Key West is as cosmopolitan as Manhattan though without the skyscrapers, our small town shows through like the tail of a shirt not quite tucked in. No manner of sanding and smoothing, up-scaling and renovating can quite get rid of our small town roots.

Mallory Square Market

Small town? Or Manhattan without the skyscrapers?

Here’s how I know I live in Key West — and not some other small town, or, heaven forbid, Manhattan:

Visitors don’t know we’re here: Give or take a few, there are 25,000 permanent residents on the island. Locals are invisible except for the ones who work directly with our visitors. I suspect many visitors don’t give a passing thought to the real lives of the 25,000 residents. Visitors glide over the surface of this working community with its city government, churches, health systems, court houses and such and never realize they’ve not seen the real Key West. Visitors love or hate us based on how well we fulfill their imagination of what a tropical island at the end of the highway ought to be.

We’re in each other’s business: Sure, every small town is all up in everyone else’s business. Rumors, gossip and a wealth of useful information make their ways along the Coconut Telegraph, these days with an able assist from social media. Without our connections to the digital world there are many days when we’d not know what was happening even next door. Social media groups from lost pets and power outages to crashes on the Overseas Highway are quick to post the news and a strong crowd-sourcing ethic keeps things updated (though one does need to be wary of the occasional scammer who asks ever so politely to “bump” a post.)

Customer service still comes with a smile: Being a retail clerk standing behind a cash register or at the customer service counter ranks up there with the top 10 most thankless jobs. The pay sucks; that’s a given. You’re on your feet all day. If you’re lucky, people act like you’re invisible rather than angrily hollering for your manager.

Key West shows the best of the quintessential small town in the middle of the street when cars stop and folks exchange pleasantries, oblivious to the patient drivers in line behind them. Or when three grocery carts pull close together so the conversation can continue while a stranger squeezes past. Or when one knows the mail carrier by name and the server at one’s table came over for dinner last evening.

Small things. Small town. Our town. Warts and all.


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