The Key West Mystique

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Key West in 1980

Key West in the 1980s and ’90s | Same old problems: housing, staffing, tourists and Duval

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.

03/01/2024

Cliches exist for a reason. We humans cast about for a shorthand way to capture how we’re doing at any particular time and we end up with a phrase or two that, well, just work. Take, for instance, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I can’t doom-scroll my social media without wondering if anyone actually understands that history doesn’t begin the day we first experience something. Like the Europeans who “discovered” America. I mean, really, there were anywhere from 8 million to 112 million people living successfully in North America when Columbus sailed his ocean blue.

Mostly because we don’t care much about history and context, we just can’t seem to shake that nothing-happened-before-me instinct.

All that is to say I love reading old newspapers. So when my backyard neighbor dropped off two huge grocery bags filled with Key West newspapers from the 1980s and ’90s, I couldn’t resist hunkering down for some light reading. PS: The Cat 5s loved those bags, on which they napped for weeks and snapped at each other for squatting rights to the better of the two.

We’re approaching half-century status from the days those newspapers were published and the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.

Take for instance this excerpt from March 22, 1992: “Ed Swift presented an almost doomsday scenario of what could happen if future hospitality industry development created a demand for more service workers who would be unavailable to fill those positions if they couldn’t find low-cost housing.”

Swift, who is alive and kicking, went on to say: “Those with low incomes will be priced out of the market — the very people who will be needed to fill those job spots. … I’m not an advocate to build or not build [new resort properties and venues]. This is the state we are in. How are we going to deal with it [housing for the service sector employees]? It’s not just tourism — it’s every level of service in the community.”

I think I wrote pretty much the same thing in last week’s column: “It’s a catastrophic trend line for our island. Regular folks — the cops, teachers, doctors, professionals, public employees et al. — cannot buy a home in Key West. They simply don’t have the income to make the numbers work — even if a mortgage payment alone might be cheaper than paying rent.”

Key West in the 1980s

Key West in the 1980s | Nothing new today

How about Duval Street, retail and tourists run amok? “It seems to happen almost overnight in the steamy month of September,” begins a Dec. 21, 1986 story in the Miami Herald. “A new store will open on Duval and another will disappear. In a two-week period [in 1986], a dozen new shops planted stakes on this highest-priced strip of real estate in Key West, while nearly that many folded.”

“Duval whispers promises of prosperity,” said Kamal Jagasia, owner of the Gold Palace. “They want to be rich overnight. Can’t do that. They think the money comes easy. It does not.”

Then in 1989, when Fantasy Fest promoters couldn’t come up with the money to pay the city for security, the big parade was canceled, something local residents seemed kinda happy about because they were against spending tax dollars to fund the deficit. (Swift opposed spending tax dollars, too.) Then, just what would you expect, along come the business folks with their gloomy economic predictions: Tourists are canceling reservations; Fantasy Fest participation will drop from 30,000 to 10,000, and Key West would face a “major crisis” because without the parade, Fantasy Fest and perhaps the entire tourist season would be dead.

In the end, Truman Annex’s private developer, Pritam Singh, also still alive and kicking, said he’d find the $10,000 to cover the security cost deficit. Because, of course, the show must go on.

There’s plenty more like that in the old newspapers. Complaints about traffic, tourists, torn-up roads and arguments over the locations of affordable housing developments, like the failed project at Bayview Park in 1988.

Heck, even water contamination isn’t new. This from the New York Times on Sept. 28, 1999, when human waste contamination from leaking septic systems and aging sewer connections closed beaches for swimming up and down the Keys. The signs had been posted all summer, but the tourism advertising put a positive spin on things: “None of the beaches are closed,” said one lodging entrepreneur. “Sunbathing is perfectly safe. Now, going in the water is another story.”

I’ll leave you with this from that Times story:

“It’s easy to believe, floating in such beauty, that it is still paradise … but for a long time it has been changing. Route 1 creeps with bumper-to-bumper traffic, even on a weekday afternoon, the convertibles and rental mini-vans of tourists sandwiched by trucks hauling mobile homes and concrete. … It is possible to hear the electricity hiss and buzz through the power lines as it travels the peninsula [Note to Times’ copy editors: It’s an archipelago] to the bars on Key West’s Duval Street.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to read the complete Sept. 28, 1999 story from the New York Times. I made it a gift article for those without subscriptions.

1 Comment

  1. Peter J O'Keefe

    I was in Key West from 90-94. Good times. Split a 3 br house with friends (one of whom was Irish Kevin), and we paid about $300/mo each for a nice place on Catherine. Back then, you could actually save a little money there as a bartender or wait person. Not so much, anymore, I suspect.

    Reply

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