In some respects, going to Key West is akin to traveling to the edge of the American universe and taking a good look at the future – and it’s not bright.
I’ll spare you the geography lesson, but suffice it to say we are dealing with an isolated island community that has been pumped up almost solely by tourist dollars. It is also a community that can only be supplied by road (only one), and, to much lesser extent, by air and sea. If Key West had to depend solely on air and sea replenishment, it would probably last about two weeks.
It is hot there in October and very humid too – much too much for me. I had hoped that there would be some moderating in temperature, but there wasn’t. Daytime highs were 87-92 not counting the real feel which was more like 91-99. Nighttime lows were in the mid to high 70s. Humidity generally was around 60% in the daytime hours. Without air conditioning, this place also curls up and dies.
The town itself is fighting a losing war on two fronts – culturally and environmentally. First, culturally. Key West is, if we are to be honest, a giant tourist trap that is fighting a rear guard action to maintain it’s historic charm. The famous Duval Street has, in the past few years, been likened to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street with the exceptions of the lack of world class restaurants and the proliferation of chintzy souvenir shops.
There have been some efforts to rein in the scam artists in the last few years but overall, the street is best taken in during the day unless you want to experience a mile long fraternity drinking party at night with all that goes with it.
The charming parts of the city are holding their own and are worth a look. Hemingway’s house, in my opinion, is well worth a look. We didn’t go to Truman’s Winter White House – they can sell their Trump souvenirs to someone else. There are gardens and wildlife exhibits as well. Basically, the tourism revolves around water sports and drinking. There are only a few bona fide land based attractions.
The old homes sit uncomfortably near new development, which is making continued infrastructure demands on the city. Also, you don’t have to set foot in the city proper, as there are a number of all inclusive resorts in Key West that have their own private beaches.
A final point – the city is for the rich. Cheap shacks and beat up trailers are going for $250k and up. Trolley drivers and other residents constantly complain they can’t afford to live in the city. Everybody is living 2-4 to a flat. The one trolley driver admits he and his wife can only afford their modest flat because she is a ‘professional,’ whatever that means.
And the apartments they live in are ugly. All of the new housing in Key West looks brutally out of place. For the sake of the people living in the old town, they can’t be seen from there.
If anything, the cost of living will get worse. Key West’s police cruisers are emblazoned with the words ‘protecting and serving paradise.’ Remembering the lyrics of the Eagles’ song ‘The Last Resort:’ “call some place paradise; kiss it goodbye.” Never truer than referring to Key West.
Strangely enough, perhaps out of sheer necessity for ‘the help,’ Key West has the rare distinction of having both a working Sears and K-Mart in town. I doubt you will find that combination anywhere else in the USA. Outside of the immediate downtown and quaint living spaces, it’s pretty much a resort town strip shopping center. I don’t believe there is one square foot of undeveloped land left in town, but I may be wrong.
This leads to the obvious – the whole thing is unsustainable. I wonder how many people know it?
Each day I was there, the sea reminded both tourists and residents that it will reclaim their paradise soon. Flowing under the permeable limestone, the sea water (from the Atlantic or Gulf, take your pick) comes up, sometimes violently, from the storm grates in the streets all over town. Some of the streets get a little wet, some turn into un-navigable rivers. The city leaves ‘Street Closed’ signs on most street corners to make shutting down the streets easy and fast. They need to: I saw the street in front of our place go from zero to completely flooded in about 30 minutes.
The National Weather Service issues bulletins about this phenomenon every day. It looks like this:
Minor coastal flooding is possible in portions of the Florida Keys. The coastal flooding will be greatest around the times of higher high tides in the Middle and Lower Keys, but water levels will remain high even during low tide along the Bayside of the Upper Keys. See the latest Coastal Hazard Message for additional details.
And the water smells. God, does it smell. If you go to the south beaches as we did on the trolley tour, the guide will point out that these beaches, usually swarmed, are practically empty. Because it smells so bad. Why? Here’s the brief explanation from keywestislandnews.com:
That ubiquitous smell is decaying sargassum, islands of floating, brown sea algae that is piling up along the beaches of Key West, the Florida peninsula, Mexico and other Caribbean islands. Happens every summer when the winds and currents come from the south.
Except October isn’t ‘summer’ and this stuff is coming in by the tanker load. We had just observed the beach after the city had come by with some kind of scrapers to take as much of the sargassum off the beaches although some remained. The water is still full of it – you can tell because it’s brown. No one wants to swim in it because you will smell like raw sewage the rest of the day.
When the water comes up from the drains, it has the same smell. It makes ‘enjoying’ paradise rather difficult at times.
But the seagrass, as the locals call it, is a natural occurrence and the rest of Florida’s beaches are stocked with it as well. The real threat is the red tide which was forming off the Gulf Coast in the Tampa area when we were there. From mote.com:
Why are red tides harmful? Many red tides produce toxic chemicals that can affect both marine organisms and humans. … The red tide toxins can also accumulate in molluscan filter-feeders such as oysters and clams, which can lead to neurotoxic shellfish poisoning in people who consume contaminated shellfish.
But back to the main point – Key West is barely above sea level and the rising ocean levels will eventually overwhelm the island. Miami is experiencing the same phenomenon, perhaps worse, since they get ocean currents that Key West does not (because of the coral reefs protecting the island). Building sea walls won’t work as the salt water is coming under the foundations, through the porous limestone and up into the city. There is no way to stop it.
Fun fact: Hemingway’s home was built on what may be the most hardened bedrock-like foundation on the island and its walls are three feet thick making it practically hurricane-proof. It’s also built on the highest part of the island. All this guarantees that when the island flood, Hemingway’s home will be the last structure standing. I’m sure he would have liked that.
Another fun fact: all the sand on Key West’s beaches come from somewhere else. There is no natural sand on the island. And the world supply of sand is decreasing sharply.
Some other things:
We saw one large iguana on a sidewalk in Key West. When the state of Florida declared open season on the creatures, Key West really took it to heart, according to the local guides. The only iguanas we saw outside of that one big one, were little baby ones here and there. The exterminators had done a pretty thorough job which kind of saddened me because I wanted to see more of them.
Burmese pythons and other snakes: we didn’t see any snakes at all.
And the most important:
Insects: imagine this subtropical island surrounded by water and there are no insects at all.
No June Bugs or ‘Palmetto Bugs,’ ants, mosquitoes or any other flying pests.
I came ready to do battle in our rented condo. I was mentally prepared for big bugs. There were none – not even an ant or housefly. There was no need for DEET spray at all.
At first, it seems OK. Then when you think about it, it gets creepy. The insect apocalypse is real and is no more evident than at Key West. The place should be swarming with pests and it’s not. Not at all.
Of course, I could say the same thing for Florida as well and most of the South. And this is not good.
So Key West may not be the end of the world but you can see it from here. Despite the time and money we spent to come here and take a look, I still feel it was worth it, even if the fun quotient was lacking. I did come back with some nice cigars, so there’s that.
But I couldn’t help feeling sad as I left that so many of these people who have paid so much to live in this ‘paradise’ will soon see paradise lost.
The whole island is unsustainable and, well, nature bats last.
Some rich man came and
raped the land, nobody caught ’em,
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes and, Jesus, people bought ’em
And they called it paradise, the place to be,
They watched the hazy sun sinking in the sea
— The Eagles ‘The Last Resort’