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Key West Time
April 23rd
7:58am · 73°F
 
 

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Southernmost Point Key West Florida sign
"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

(The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
- Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

Key west sure has changed! We hear that all the time.

And of course, that's true- change is a given, wherever you are. But since 1822, when Key West was first ceded to the United States as part of a deal with Spain, the ability to change dramatically and quickly has been a key to its survival. And the history of our island has been a story of boom and bust. When piracy was rampant in the Caribbean, then throughout the Civil War, and during both World Wars, Key West was a bustling military town. When those events ended, the numbers of GI's wound down, and the town turned to other means of economic survival.

Key West's economy has been like a wild roller coaster ride as its primary industries came and went with the times. The Keys location was smack dab in the middle of important international shipping routes. But it was also surrounded by treacherous reefs. Through the 19th Century, this curious combination led to frequent shipwrecks, and the liberal salvaging laws of the day allowed wrecking to become big business in Key West. In fact, so much money was made (and circulated among the population,) that, at times, this island was the richest per capita city in the entire United States. Luckily for shippers, but less so for the wreckers, by the late 1800's, lighthouses were popping up along the Florida coasts like mushrooms after a summer rain. The net result of this proliferation was that there were far fewer shipwrecks. And just like that, the wrecking business pretty much dried up.

Concurrent with the golden age of wrecking in Key West had been the swift rise of cigar-making here. Early in the century, cigar factories- first small, and then much grander- began to appear. They were staffed by skilled workers imported from nearby Cuba. Entire new neighborhoods sprung up as the cigar companies built hundreds of modest homes for these workers. In addition to this supply of laborers, Cuba was also the source of the world-renowned tobacco essential to Key West's cigar industry. On the supply side, the 90-mile distance between the neighboring islands was an easy boat ride away. As the local cigar industry swelled to produce much of the country's primo cigar inventory, the challenge of shipping out the finished product was more problematic. The Overseas Railroad had yet to be constructed, and there were no roads connecting the Keys to the mainland. So, when a major fire destroyed most of the cigar factories in 1886, the owners were quite ready to pack up and move their operations to Tampa, in a neighborhood which came to be known as Ybor City. This Gulf Coast location proved to be a better choice as far as bringing in the raw tobacco- some from Cuba, and some raised from Cuban seeds on farms in the American South- and then easily trucking the finished cigars north to where the demand was ravenous.

With the lucrative wrecking and cigar-making businesses finally drying up toward the end of the 1800's, new sources of income had to be found. Given the Keys' location, right where the Atlantic Ocean melds into the Gulf of Mexico, with the bounteous Gulf Stream flowing right offshore, it was only natural to turn to the sea for help.

Key West Florida residents
Conchs (as Key West natives are known) had been harvesting natural sea sponges from the shallow bay bottom for years. But in the later 1800's, that business became huge. Key Westers had always gathered their sponges from boats on the surface using poles and viewing devices that allowed them to see down to the seabed as they worked. But crews of Greek sponge divers began streaming in from the Bahamas where they had largely depleted those sponge populations. Donning heavy diving suits with bulky helmets, these divers were able to work in deeper areas where sponges of better quality grew. This industry became highly competitive and open warfare between the various factions was never too far off. But as this drama was unfolding, in the days before the existence of synthetic sponges, the natural ones were in high demand nationwide, and a lot of people made a ton of money harvesting, processing and selling these treasures to a welcoming market. Ultimately, the Greek crews ended up moving their operations to Tarpon Springs, near Tampa, where they could pursue their product without so much resistance. And the Conchs carried on their avid sponging until a blight in the early 1940's killed off the sponges, and another Key West boom went bust!

Also throughout the 19th Century, the rising popularity of sea turtle in high-end restaurants, fine hotels and specialty markets worldwide opened up another rich income source for Key West's fishermen, processors and distributors. Early on, the waters around the Keys were teeming with turtles. They were easy to catch, and canneries were built and opened right near the docks. The catch was processed into meat (much of which was made into soup), canned, and then was shipped out to markets all over the world. Unfortunately, in those times, people tended to regard the bounty of the seas as a limitless resource. After the unrestrained harvesting of massive numbers of turtles wiped out their population around the Keys, the turtle processors began bringing in their catch from all over the Caribbean and Central American coastal areas. By the 1900's, sea turtles had been pushed to near extinction, and efforts to preserve their existence continue to this very day.

Key West Florida boats
Reversals of Fortune


After nearly a century of incredible bounty on this little island, as the 20th Century dawned, Key West began to slip into a precipitous decline toward lean times. The island's economy was given a boost, and kept afloat, when WW1 broke out in 1914. The U.S. Navy opened an important submarine base as well as a Naval Air station, pouring money into Key West and boosting the population. But at the war's end in 1918, the government made the unfortunate mistake of believing we had just fought "the war to end all wars," the bases were essentially shut down, and the personnel shipped out. These bases were barely maintained as ghost facilities until they were again fired up for WW2, and later, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and blockade.

With the crash of 1929, the country (and indeed, the world,) began to slip into the Great Depression, and Key West- already in decline- was hit harder than many places. Most Conchs just barely got by on government relief money, food they could grow and fish they were able to catch. When the Federal Government initiated the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to try to get Americans back to work, someone came up with a rather good idea. If Key West could be prettied up and cultivated as a home for the arts, and properly promoted, perhaps tourism could become a solid stream of revenue and source of jobs for the town. Teams of artists, designers and builders came into town, and decorated public spaces with murals and sculptures, and designed post cards and advertising materials. They even built specific tourist attractions such as the Key West Aquarium on Mallory Square, which are still in operation today. Right in front of the Aquarium, a former grocery store was converted into an art gallery (the current Key West Art Center) where WPA as well as local artists could display and sell their work to visitors.

Military Money and Pink Gold


The early 40's brought World War Two, and with it a re-activation and expansion of the Navy's activities here, and another influx of money and residents. Thankfully, this war was over in 1945- a shorter war than its predecessor. In '46, President Harry Truman began his years of very frequent and lengthy visits to the "Little White House" on the Navy base that was to become known as Truman Annex. His presence here attracted press coverage, bringing national attention and more tourism to Key West.

In the late 1940's yet another unexpected boost came out nowhere, though the source had been with us all along. Commercial fishing as well as sport fishing were both well- established constants in the Keys, but curiously, fishermen were unable to capture much in the way of shrimp. Until one night, for some reason, it dawned on someone to try catching them at night. Lo and behold, the waters off Key West were absolutely teeming with a highly desirable species of shrimp, dubbed "Key West Pinks," which happened to be nocturnal in nature. They were therefore relatively easy to catch after sundown. To this very day these renowned delicacies are caught, processed and frozen here and shipped to fine food markets all over the country.

Greetings from Key West Florida sign
Tourism Swells- Live and Let Live


By the 1950's, word about Key West was starting to spread. This little island at the end of U.S. Highway One was open for visitors. First, they came for the incredibly pleasant Winter climate here, the laid-back pace and the world-class deep-sea sport fishing. But there was something else that kept them coming back, year after year. When visitors arrived on their very first trip to Key West, they realized in short order that they had found a culture and social environment unlike any other. While the isolated location had for so long toughened the "Conchs," and made them staunchly independent, it had also made them share a concern for one another and a willingness to look out for each other. This interdependence, in turn, resulted in an unusually high degree of tolerance and acceptance toward other locals and visitors alike. Anyone who just didn't quite "fit the mold" elsewhere felt instantly at home here. Artists, musicians, writers and performers of all sorts came to Key West, and many of them felt compelled to stay. Key West gained an international reputation among gay tourists as a tropical paradise that was accepting of everyone.

Tourism didn't become a monster economic engine overnight. It was just something that brought an influx of people and cash through the Winter months; the rest of the year was lean and rather sleepy. The old timers say that in the Summer, you could roll a bowling ball from one end of Duval Street to the other without hitting anything. Life in Key West was slow and easy- there weren't many things so pressing that they couldn't wait to be done "mañana"- tomorrow! The early 70's brought a surge of marijuana smuggling from Central America into the Keys. And law enforcement was rather lax- the town's economy needed the inflow of money! These years also brought young, free-thinking Bohemians to Key West. While the natives would have hardly been described as "hippies," their accepting and laissez-faire attitude made this a comfortable fit for flower children looking for a mellow environment that was harder to find in most places.

In March of 1971, something happened that would alter Key West in a profound way: Most of the island's Old Town district (basically, the western half of the island) was designated a U.S. Historic District. This sweeping event managed to lock in the unique historic charm and beauty of Old Key West for the long term.

Key West Florida Cottage
Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle


The nation's largest historic district comprised primarily of wooden structures had been protected for posterity. But that didn't mean it was frozen in time. The City government established the Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC) to come up with and enforce guidelines for preservation of Old Town's distinctive character. Although renovations and upgrades had to be addressed and approved on an individual basis, the primary requirements held that while the building exteriors must be preserved as nearly as possible to their original appearances, interiors could be altered, upgraded and modernized extensively. Through the 70's and 80's, a great transformation began. Many of the grander Old Town homes were bought by newcomers who had fallen in love with Key West when they had come to visit. Many of these became B&B's, guest houses and restaurants. This, of course, had the effect of further boosting the growing tourism segment of the economy here.

The old rough and tumble sailor and shrimper bars took on new attitudes, and added live music, turning the Duval Street corridor into a carnival of jovial nightlife activity. The historic guidelines allowed for a select number of non-conforming structures to be torn down and replaced with entirely new buildings, so new hotels began to pop up here and there. Also, many of the private homes have been redone and transformed into vacation rental homes. These run the gamut from quaint cottages to luxury mansions.

As the 20th Century played out, tourism had become well established as Key West's primary economic engine. While the significant swelling of the population during the "Season" stresses the infrastructure to some degree, our easygoing demeanor and spirit of cooperation makes it all pretty easy to navigate. Visitors and locals alike benefit from the wide variety of arts and cultural events and festivals that have proliferated.

Key West Florida music
The 21st Century and Beyond


As Key West moved into the 2000's, sea levels had risen a little, summer temps were up a couple of degrees, real estate prices had soared, and the town's economy was stabilized (knock wood.) Except for 2020, when the world was shaken by a global pandemic, tourism to Key West had reached a predictable, steady level.

We set out to identify some of the ways "Key West has changed." What that means to you depends primarily on when and how you got your first impressions of our special little gem of an island. If you read about Hemmingway's Key West (To Have and Have Not,) you would have ended up with a far different image than if you took Carl Hiaasen's word for it. If Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is your template, it wouldn't line up too well with the town in the Goldie Hawn movie, CrissCross. Or maybe your first visit to Key West informs your expectations. If that was in hippie-dippy 1975, you'd have a rather different idea than if it was in the disco 80's or in 1995 when real estate was just starting to sizzle.

Regardless of your expectations, though, some things remain consistent amid the change. Key Westers love to have a good time;  if you want it, every night can be party time. And in spite of how hard many of us work, the laid-back undercurrent is never too far from the surface. Something about the environment here just calms you down, and lowers your blood pressure, from the minute you cross that bridge or step off the plane.
But most of all, in spite of the fierce independent spirit among locals, we hang onto our high level of acceptance and tolerance- if you should need a helping hand, one is likely to be extended!


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