A Dispatch From Key West or The Canary In America’s Coal Mine
My wife and I are getting back to traveling and cruising and we just booked and headed off on a last minute Caribbean cruise. On this cruise our ship spent a day in Key West and I learned a few things that got me to thinking. Before arrival we were told that there were going to be environmentalist protests in the town but they probably wouldn’t disrupt our visit. Okay, fine – this is Key West and normal is never normal.
If you have caught any news over the past few years about Key West you may have heard that “the city” is trying officially to ban cruise ships from visiting. Casually the news has reported that the city fathers believe that the cruise ship visits disrupt the peaceful character of Key West and Covid gave them an excuse to try and change things. In the past Key West put in a requirement that cruise ships had to depart an hour before sunset so as not to block the sunset celebrations each day at Mallory Square, which is a long standing daily ritual here. These new plans are different. When the city council tried banning cruise ships the state of Florida stepped in and said they didn’t have the authority but it seems they still haven’t given up.
Today when we docked there were a lot of people out on the waterfront holding up signs and though we couldn’t read them we told ourselves that this didn’t look good. Much to our surprise when we went ashore almost all the signs said things like “Welcome Cruise Ships To Key West” and “Welcome Ashore, We’re Glad Your Here”. Approaching the groups we got into a number of conversations that really surprised us. We were told that we were probably the fifth ship into Key West since Covid shut everything down and that a majority of the Conchs (that’s what Key West residents call themselves) didn’t want to see cruise ships banned at all.
A Bit Of History
I first visited Key West when I was in the Navy back in the 60’s. Back then it was still a Navy town and in the evening Sloppy Joes* was a sea of white uniforms. This Southern most town in the continental United States was actually a blue color place. The main occupation was working shrimping trawlers and rolling Cuban cigars. It was also a place where people who, for one reason or another, didn’t want to be found, often ended up. It produced an odd and kooky atmosphere that often seemed like a continuous party. Conchs also made their living tending bar, waiting tables, selling T-shirts, working boat charters and diving excursions.
Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, Jimmy Buffet and a list of famous eccentrics loved the town. Back in the early 80’s when we became Florida residents we often spent weekends in the Keys. Key West was a fun place where bars were open late into the night hosting an active gay community featuring a gay carnival each year. Hemingway was celebrated as the islands favorite resident with a week long festival each year in his honor and a salvage diver named Mel Fischer was selling shares in his search for Spanish treasure from a card table in front of the post office**.
Some time between the 1980’s and today the large Navy base closed much of its operations and sold off a lot of its land near downtown where luxury condos sprang up. More condos got developed on the east side of the island near what Key West called its beach and the island’s property values began to sky-rocket. America’s elites flocked to the Sun and water of Key West, turning those condos into million dollar properties and driving up all property values in general. It also seemed while they talked up the towns kooky character, quietly they sought to “normalize” the town. Big yachts began to dock in the downtown marina and five star resorts opened.
Back To Today
As we left the ship today and began talking to the couple of dozen sign holders welcoming the cruise passengers to Key West we learned some interesting stories. They talked about the new millionaire property owners and their money influencing Key West’s government. They complained about property values pricing locals out of the place where their parents and grand-parents raised their families. How bartenders and restaurant workers and fishermen had to move miles North up the Keys to find affordable housing and even that was becoming difficult.
They said that the real Conchs with their blue color jobs were also dependent on the steady stream of visitors that drove down to Key West and the cruise passengers that poured ashore every day or two. They talked about how the new efforts by the city government is driven by the new elite property owners and the corruption bought with their money.
These new wealthy, elite residents didn’t want the views of the sunset from the balconies of their newly bought waterfront condos blocked by those visiting cruise ships. Many felt threatened by the odd characters that filled the downtown streets at night. They would prefer that the quirky character of Key West get toned down a bit and that the “woman going crazy on Caroline Street” and Key West’s other off-center characters be moved off the island. Simply put their “money talked”.
We’re not so sure how well they’ll do fighting this problem. Our fear is that what’s happening in Key West is being repeated in hundreds of other locations around this country from San Francisco to Brooklyn to even rural Montana and is actually an attack on middle class, blue collar America. As the American middle class shrinks the country bifurcates into the elite “haves” versus everyone else, empowered by the politics of division and controlled by limiting access to information by the new internet gatekeeper companies.
Time will tell and we’ll be watching Key West…
*Sloppy Joes is a famous bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway and lots of sailors on a regular basis.
**More on Mel Fisher and Treasure Salvors HERE