The tides are changing on this coral anchor to the 150-mile-long Florida archipelago. As the country's "southernmost city," Key West is selling sunshine and a casual but cosmospolitan way of life that Northeasterners are buying in record numbers.
Larry E. Rogers, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 800,000 visitors now stay at least one night in Key West. About 650,000 were coming five years ago, and there has been a steady 12-per-cent increase yearly. "Tourism and fishing compete for top billing in a big million-dollar payroll here," Rogers said.
Fifteen years ago Holiday Inn was the first national chain to build in Key West. Seven chains are presently listed, in addition to the 40 privately-owned motels and hotels.
"A lot of the street people you see are artisans and craftsmen who own their own shops and offer the community something," Rogers said. "The hard-core bums and hippies are on the decline as real estate values increase here. The restoration of conch homes is also pushing out these unwanted people." The low-grade housing and boarding houses of the past are no longer available and the young wanderers are thinning out because of it, he added.
Trouble, unfortunately, came with these youths. Breaking and entering and petty thievery still plague the island resort, although crime is down 5 per cent from last year, according to Chief of Police Winston James.There is no organized crime in Key West, he said.
One reason for the decrease, James noted, is a recent law passed against hitchhiking in Monroe County, which runs north to the Everglades. A similar ordinance was enacted in the city of Key West, and police are discouraging hitchhikers in the upper Keys. The island can be easily sealed off to stop criminals, he said.
Thousands of people from South Florida drive down to Key West for the day to enjoy a meal of fresh conch fritters or Gulf shrimp steamed in beer or a sightseeing ride on the open tram "conch train." Reservations for the tourist train totaled about 300,000 for 1976, a rise of 25 per cent over the past year, with an anticipated 50-per-cent increase for 1977, said Tim Miller, general manager of the conch train and a former Washington resident.
Miller was in sales and marketing before heading South three years ago when he foresaw future business opportunities in Key West. "Agents are coming down to familiarize themselves with the prices, shops and tourist attractions. From our advertising we're getting more Canadians and South Americans. There are big numbers from Michigan, too," Miller said.
"I saw Georgetown when it was rundown; then the restoration started and it boomed," he recalled. "Within another year or two Duval street (the main business street) will be like M Street on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but we don't have the same traffic. We've seen the good and the bad, and we'll try not to allow the bad."
Confirming the newly-discovered appeal of this remote island, realtor Clay McDaniels said he sold 50 homes last year to people largely from the Northeast who were looking for a place to get away from it all. The gradual upswing came over a three-year period, with sales now leveling off as there are fewer houses on the market.
The buying trend occurred concurrently with the phasing out of Key West's 15,000-man Naval Base, which closed in March, 1974, although Navy personnel had not occupied many of the presently desired, steamboat gothic homes in the Old Town historic district, McDaniels said.
A former mainstay of the local economy, the military presence in Key West was established in 1822, after the territory was ceded to the United States by Spain. Naval history continued to be made here when the island became a refuge for survivors and injured from the "USS Maine." Later it was used as a submarine base and U.S. Naval Air Station in World War II, and as the site of President Harry Truman's Key West Conference of Joint Chief of Staff of his Little White House on the U.S. Naval Base in 1948.
In weathering four centuries of colorful history, Key West has been Spanish Conquistadores, pirates, Bahamian, Cuban and Anglo-Saxon migrations, and prospered and failed as a wrecking area and a sponging and cigar center.
"It was a Navy honky-tonk community until four years ago," said McDaniels. "The Navy overwhelmed the downtown area and discouraged retirement and professional people."
The downtown business on Duval Street could not compete with the simultaneous withdrawal of the Navy and the building of a new shopping center north of town. Seedy shops and bars reflected the deteriorating economy, attracting a clientele of derelicts and winos. Named after William Pope DuVal, Florida's first territorial governor, the street stretches a short 14 blocks across the island from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alantic Ocean.
Working with those business owners who were reluctant to leave Duval Street, Mayor Charles (Sonny) McCoy two years ago spearheaded "Downtown '76," a renovation project to revitalize the abandoned area. McCoy was able to secure federal funds for street improvements, light and tree plantings. Failing businesses were bought up and committee were formed to oversee the rejuvenation block-by-block.
"We had no place to go but up," said McCoy, a fifth generation "conch" in his sixth year of office. "About 80 per cent of the downtown stores were vacant. As mayor, I wanted to get the public and private sectors together. It had been a dream since I graduated from college. "It was a matter of leverage. One building would have no effect. We wanted to really do something and a cooperative effort for a visual impact can make a difference. I thin there has been a significant transformation," McCoy said.
He maintains that the facelift resulted from "Miami and Key West brains and money," although numerous neew Duval Street businesses have been the brainchildren of innvocative non-Key Westers.
Gerard Heimann started coming to Key West in the 1950s "as a place to relax from the Washington strain." By 1969, he had bought two homes here and retired as president of the Globe Veneer and Wood Co. in Washington and Eastern Tools and Gauge Co. in New York. In 1973, he opened "The Sandwich Deck" on Duval Street, a popular, outdoor eaterie. He owns an adjacent apartment, a Haitian sportswear shop and a walkup ice cream parlor as well. The buildings are part of an 1880 customs house that Heimann restored.
"In Washington," he said, "I was on the phone pushing buttons all the tume. I can't live without doing things, and now I'm really working physically. 'Rewarding' is too exuberant a word, but there is easy living here. The people are nice and the economy is on the upbeat. I felt an instant rapport with Key West."
Richard Heyman, owner of the Gingerbread Gallery on Duval Street, ran an employment agency near Toledo, Ohio. Three years ago he was attracted to Key West for its potential business pluses. He bought a large, rundown grocery and converted it into an attractive, spacious gallery.
Realtor McDaniels agrees that the new breed of Key Westers are affluent people of taste. "Word got around in metropolitan New York that there were a lot of cute conch houses for sale in Key West. People began to trickle down from Manhattan, Virginia, Washington, Massachussetts," he said. "They're people who treasure 19th century houses and come to fix them up. There are more functioning 19th century houses here than anywhere in the Southeast, over 600."
Jessie Porter Newton, a resident for three generations, holds court graciously from her second-floor quarters in one such mansion on Caroline Street. This block of imposing, balconied homes are her heritage from a father and grandfather whose holdings once dominated Key West. The homes are now rented and somewhat tangled in tropical growth.
From a former sleeping porch converted into a parlor shaded in palms, Mrs. Newton recalled another era when she welcomed Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway and Gloria Swanon. "These old houses are valid," she smiled. "They give but they don't go. They blend but they don't break."
Natives are quick to credit Mrs. Newton as the staunch leader of the "Conch renaissance" that began in 1960 as a movement to perserve and restore the town's unique conch houses. In the late 1950s, the Caroline Lowe house, across Duval Street from Mrs. Newton's grandfather's property, had been damaged by a fire and was to be destroyed by a develpper who'd been offered $20,000 for the land. The historic home had been a former musuem, a renowed restaurant and hospitality house before falling into disrepair. Mrs. Newton contacted the National Trust and begged the developer to restore the building instead of bulldozing it.
But at 6 o'clock one morning soon afterwards, she remembered hearing crashing and bang, which she realized where bulldozers attacking the Lowe house. "I'll go and sit on it and they'll have to bulldoze me, too," she told her husband. He wouldn't let her go.
"You couldn't have built another house like that for $150,000 considering the wooden pegs and wood cut by hand. The pillars were solid wood two-and-a-half stories high. There was a crooked coconut palm in the garden and you could the see the moon through it. It was so beautiful. When the bulldozers were through, it was just flat dirt." She shook her tiny fist. Today a one-story brick insurance company sits on the former Lowe site.
After the Lowe house was leveled, Mrs. Newton put all her bantam weight behind Key West restoration, forming the Old Island Restoration Foundation to secure and renovate the town's landmarks of architectural history.
A first success was saving the home where the naturalist illustrator James Audubon visited and worked from being flattened for a filling station. With wealthy businessman, Col. Mitchell Wolfson of Key West and Miami, the foundation had the house restored and turned into a museum. Old brick warehouses on the Mallory Dock and the oldest house in Key West were among other successful restorations which followed.
"I have just begun to fight," winked Mrs. Newton, who was looking forward to this year's 17th annual Old Island Days Festival (through March 12), which is highlighted by the opening of over two dozen historic homes and gardens. Proceeds go towards the foundation's continuing restoration programs.
Poet Robert Frost and playwright Tennessee Williams discovered the balmy charm of Key West in the 1930s, along with Harry Truman, John Dos Passo and Hemingway. From 1931 to 1961, Hemingway owned a Key West home that is now a public museum with tours conducted by his friends. Some 60 seven-toed cats roam among the huge palms, claiming descent from the novelist's original felines.
More recently, novelists John Hersey and Ralph Ellison, poets and Richard Wilbur and John Ciardi, and short story writer Peter Taylor have joined the winter ranks, along with novelists Ramona Stewart, James Kirkwood and James Leo Herlihy.
'Newcomers are attracted to the isolation and tropical climate," said McDaniel. "They like the manana attitude. This is a slightly exotic island, an island on the edge of the Caribbean, and it's more Caribbean than mainland."
A laissez-faire atmosphere is evidenced in fully integrated neighborhoods, a sizable homosexual community and the appeal to young, rootless itinerants.
"They (homosexuals) add to the economy and have brightened the place up with new boutiques and restaurants," and the chamber's Larry Rogers. "Many are independently wealthy. They don't bother anyone. They've always been here, it's just that things have become more open in the past year."
"Destitute kids from 18 to 22 wander around from all over the country, from Michigan to California," James said. "They don't know where they're going.They're high school dropouts. They're non-productives. In September, they start flowing South on U.S. 1, hitchhiking all the way down. They're like ants, and they come and go.Tere's nothing in the world we can do about them. Our jails are full of them."
Some sleep on the beaches at night, James said, others live out of vans and panel trucks, bu they must park their vehicles in a trailer camp at night. Drug busts are frequent and usually involve marijuana and cocaine.
"I'm hopeful the numbers of these non-productives will continue to decrease," said James. "They're a real problem in Daytona Beach and Ft. Lauderdale, but they're more used to them there than we are. We're not going to get used to them.
Meanwhile, gingerbread homes still share equal palm shade with paint-peeling shanties, and the patois is as rich and varied as the diet - frijoles and yellow rice or red snapper straight from the sea.
"Key West is a melting pot all to itself," said Mayor McCoy. "There are military, shrimpers, Cubans, blacks and conchs - native Key Westers whether of Bahamian, Cuban or Anglo-Saxon descent. Conchs are insular, independent people. We've had to do it on our own here. This attitude is an attraction to artistic people. There is a lot of tolerance. We all blend and work together. It makes for very interesting living."