Travel Series: Key West, The People.
The People of Key West
It is said that if you don’t like Key West, come back in 7 years, it will have changed again. People are what make Key West, and they are unique and changing. Except for the Conchs…
Conchs are the term that locals use for themselves. There are two types of Conchs…Saltwater and Freshwater. The Saltwater Conchs have lived in Key West long enough to raise at least one generation of Key Westers…and many trace their roots back to the original Bahamian settlers. When the wrecking law was changed in 1828, it imposed a framework and a new bureaucracy to add order to the wrecking “free for all” that existed on Key West (that included collusion between ship captain and wrecker, sabotage and using mules with lights on the beach to fool ships into thinking that it was safe). The laws required that the wrecker and claimant be represented in a U.S. court to assess the claim. So the Bahamian wreckers moved to Key West and so did the lawyers…many becoming wealthy in the process. Freshwater Conchs are self-proclaimed and have typically been here for 10 years. Key West recycles itself every 10-12 years, to qualify as a Conch; you have to have been through at least one boom/bust cycle.
Conchs remain despite the meager service jobs in the tourism industry. Some stay because they know that there is no other place like Key West. Others feel that the world is not as kind or tolerant as Key West. Many don’t care about possessions or money and prefer to live each day relaxed, checked out from the relentless cycle of work and cold weather…that is how they or their forebears got here in the first place. Early Conchs found Key West while shipwrecked, more recently, people just kept running until they reach the end of the road. Key West is the southernmost point in the United States, the only frost free zone in the Continental U.S.
Most Conchs live in New Town, named such because most of the homes were built in the 50s. This part of the land was “created” by fill by the Navy, and unfortunately, they didn’t put in enough. So New Town floods. The homes are boring boxes, standard fare for the rest of the United States, 50s style boxes with low ceilings and little to recommend them. But given the prices of the other areas, New Town is the affordable alternative.
Corruption occasionally invades local politics and the school systems…the Conchs run it all. Freshwater and Saltwater Conchs have a fundamental understanding of Key West that its other citizens do not. They have weathered Key West’s boom and bust cycles. They know that the Key West will have a bust cycle and they will still be here long after the other groups have left.
A number of Key West residents are artists attracted to the quirkiness, the warm light, the beauty of its waters and sky, the parties, the “all things are cool” atmosphere; and, of course the acceptance. It is said that Key West has more writers per capita than anywhere, from 8-13 Pulitzer Prize winners reside for all or part of the year in Key West. This is where Ernest Hemingway produced nearly half his life's work including To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. It's where Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire, supposedly while listening to Billie Holiday records, and where he partied with Truman Capote, James Leo Herlihy and Thomas McGuane. Writers such as Ann Beattie, Annie Dillard, Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, John Dos Passos, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein and Elizabeth Bishop are just a few whose names who have called Key West home.
There are also Artist in Residence programs that allow artists to spend 6 months to a year; paid for by generous patrons. There are also artists who are drawn to the natural beauty, the quirky personalities and the animal life…and the tourists who buy their work.
Jimmy Buffet made Key West famous with “Margaritaville” which was composed when he was a Key West resident. In his early years he played for the “hippies” in Mallory Square. That song captures the laid back attitude and directionlessness of Key West. He shows his gratitude by coming back frequently and performing in his bar, appropriately named Margaritaville.
"Wasted away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people say that it’s a woman to blame
But I know, it’s my own damn fault."
A quick glance at tourism brochures, local plays, tourist sites would make you think that Hemingway invented Key West…but he didn’t…he merely inhabited Key West when it was a different shape then it is now. A shape that fit his outsized personality. In Hemingway’s day, Key West was anarchy with cock fights, wanton fishing, fighting and betting, drinking and sex. Its shape then was more similar to the metaphorical wild west, until the planes came, filled with tourists to see Hemingway or the fabled Key West. So Hemingway left. But his place was taken by other writers.
Most Key Westers are immigrants. The largest group of immigrants is the Cubans, some of whom are Conchs; others are more recent, having taken the treacherous 80 mile ocean voyage from Cuba to the Key West. In the 1880s they came after the first Cuban revolution failed. They came to make cigars and find freedom. They established themselves on White Street and Key West absorbed their culture. White Street still has local bodegas (usually below a laundromat) that offer Cuban coffee and Cuban sandwiches. The Conchs, military and tourists stand in lines to savor the best import from Cuba, its coffee.
The Eastern Europeans, primarily the Czechs and Poles, have recently established a toehold here, bringing in more and more Czechs. They are skilled tradesman and have brought Key West pierogis; but Key West has not embraced their culture they way that it gulped up the Cuban and Bahamian cultures.
Finally, there are the poorer immigrants, Haitian or new Latinos, ones that strain the systems with their large and broken families but do the jobs that the Conchs are no longer willing to do.
Other Key Westers
The watermen live on and off the water…houseboats, ships. Theirs is a world of incredible beauty as they live off treasures of the sea, avoiding sand bars and catching fish, but also in a continuous battle with the heat, humidity, mold and mildew. The boats for hire are an interesting business unique to Key West in their contempt for their prey, the tourists; who pay exorbitant sums to catch fish.
The Navy is a presence that has saved Key West on many occasions. Sometimes the jets from the naval station scream overhead, but Key Westers just take the noise in stride. Generally, the Navy men and women stay on the base or go to Duval Street to savor the bars and the entertainment. Retirees stay at Trumbo point if they are lucky enough to get a spot for their RV where they can enjoy the weather, the breezes, the ocean and the price. Key West is grateful for all that the military has done for it, most importantly bringing it fresh water. In 1942 the Navy built the water pipes that travel the 130 miles from Miami to Key West so that Key West, which does not have fresh water, was no longer a prisoner of rain and the cisterns that held it.
The homeless are a part of the fabric of the island as well, but the homeless in Key West are different. In Key West, it is difficult to tell a homeless person from a resident. We dress the same, we ride the same bicycles, we like the same places. Key West provides a shelter on Stock Island which is a 4 mile bike ride from milepost 0. Every morning the shelter closes and the homeless move to the beaches for a shower and to soak up the same sun and enjoy the same beauty as the tourists. On Sunday mornings there is a full breakfast and Christian service, all are welcome to feed their bodies and souls. Many even stay for the service.
Standing in the jury line, I was reminded about what I liked about Key West. The line was long and wound through the courthouse, but each person was inscrutable, any one could belong to any of the classes. In the northeast, people wear their status; on the West Coast, plastic surgery renders everyone the same…but in Key West, a plastic surgeon would be hard pressed to maintain a business. Gucci loafers and other accoutrements to display wealth are not noticed…dress and appearance have nothing to do with wealth, status, sexual orientation…everyone is the same in their inscrutability.
Learn more about Key West in these posts from Angela:
The People of Key West (This one)
My Favorite Inhabitants
My Second Favorite Inhabitants -- Flora
Key West Quirkiness
Key West's Spirituality