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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Key West - The Real Thing

The above photo is of the Key West Cafe - the one located in Wildwood, New Jersey. There is a reason people that live in places like New Jersey try to recreate places that remind themselves of the real thing-Key West. It is the fact that they probably have had some of the best moments of their lives in Key West. Many dream of eventually moving to Key West. Some who dream of moving to Key West live in other places, like the ten cities listed below

There is a piece on the Internet today that discusses the ten worst places to live in America which are (according to the item) 1. El Centro, California, 2. Cleveland, Ohio, 3. Detroit, Michigan, 4. Las Vegas, Nevada, 5. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 6. Los Angeles, California, 7. Phoenix. Arizona, 8. Newark, New Jersey, 9. Miami, Florida, and 10. Memphis, Tennessee. CLICK HERE to read the story and get the details. The reasons cited for naming these cities bad places to live include crime, crime rate, violent crime, joblessness, foreclosures, weather, and traffic. (Most sane people don't dream of moving to places like these cities.)

I once toyed with the idea of moving to Laguna Beach, California. It is a small town much like Key West. Lots of laid back people living very comfortably from what I was able to see. The old part of Laguna has mix of California bungalows and mission style homes built before World War II. The oceanfront climate keeps the area lush compared to the tinder dry hills that protect Laguna from the megalopolis to the east, north, and south. Like Key West, it is isolated. The big Interstate highways are several miles to the east but are close enough to get you back to mass civilization within minutes. The isolation the seaside community once had is only ephemeral today.

The other side of Laguna Beach, the side that I did not care for, was the fixation the Lagunatics have on their own self-importance, flash, vanity, call it what you will. The ever present pre-occupation with self-indulgence is really magnified in a small town. And while I loved the idealic little town of Laguna Beach with the roaring Pacific Ocean and the wonderful beaches, I opted in favor of a location where "style" is often more about wearing clean clothes and riding bikes as opposed to wearing designer labels and driving flashy cars. That place is Key West.

I grew up in Denver in the 1950s. I lived in the suburbs as a kid and moved to the Capitol Hill area near downtown Denver when I started law school in 1969. I lived there until I moved to Key West in late 1993. Towards the end I started to feel ill at ease about Denver. The air (smog) was getting worse each year. Driving, even just a few blocks to work, became horrible as the streets were incessantly clogged with too much traffic. The crime rate started to rise all over the metropolitan area. (We didn't have a metropolitan area when I was a kid. But we had a huge one when I left town.)
I remember a senseless drive by shooting where a little three year old girl was shot and killed in her parents' car in a northern suburb. Once my house was broken into. I came home and found the burglar standing in my kitchen where he had smashed in the back door. My Old English sheepdog was quivering under the breakfast table. My house had been ransacked, and I felt very violated. A woman Realtor was raped and killed little over a block from where I lived just before I left town. That was about one of the scariest things that ever happened to me. (I lived in a very good part of town.) I know individual acts of violence can happen anywhere, but there were too many of them occurring too frequently and then too near me.

The "air" in Key West is not the same as the air in Denver. Thank God!

I made my first trip to Key West during spring break in 1984. It was buzzing with people. I fell in love with this place very quickly. I imagined what it would be like to live here all of the time. The rational good angel on my shoulder told me to step back and not act rashly. I waited nine years before I took the final step that got me to Key West. I passed up several good opportunities waiting for the right place, the right price, the right time. But during the nine years I never gave up dreaming about moving to Key West because I knew my life would be different here.

I had a preconception of what life in Key West would be like. It didn't turn out the way I thought. It was better.

A few days ago on Duval Street - Key West

I found the photo (just above) on the Internet on Wednesday. It was taken in front of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Duval Street. The two signs are self-explanatory. The guy who hates Fags carries his sign anywhere he can attract attention. He is a daily sight somewhere in Key West. The guy with the "other" sign is new and is making an equally forceful counter statement. What caught my attention was the two guys kissing to the left rear of the photo. In case you missed it, a federal judge in California ruled on Wednesday that Proposition 8, the ballot issue that outlawed gay marriage in California, was unconstitutional. I thought this photo pretty much sums up the debate on the issue: some hate; some hate back; and some make love in Key West where it is okay to be gay in public. Key West is pretty non-judgmental no matter who you are or what you want to do.

Key West has changed a lot in the twenty six years since I first came here. Many of the houses look much nicer, and the sidewalks and streets are certainly in better repair.
There is more traffic for sure. During season the streets are filled with Conch Trains, scooters and those damned electric cars. All the tourists bring lots of money to Key West and that keeps our economy running, Thank You very much. The talking heads on TV do their damnedest to stir up trouble by scaring people about hurricanes, oil slicks, Cubans who float over to Key West to escape old what's his name. It works sometimes but the public eventually remembers how much fun it is to be in Key West. So they return year after year after year.

"Pinkie" the beautiful home (left) in Truman Annex - a new addition to Key West

Right now the island is in the summer doldrums. Town is still busy, but not like it is in season when everybody is making lots of money. Each weekend something is happening that targets certain groups to come here. A couple of weeks ago it was Hemingway Days. Last week it was the start of lobster season. It will be something else every weekend-forever.

After living here for several years I figured out that life here is not about the houses, the climate, the ocean and beaches, the gay acceptance thing, the culture, or the laid back lifestyle. No, to me, it's just about living life each day and being very contented.

People who live here learn to adapt to Island time and Island style. I remember getting on the highway and sometimes city streets, and speeding a lot. I always felt the need to get ahead of the guy in front of me so I could get where I was going sooner. Key West is so small there is no reason to speed and no place to do it. You gotta be pretty lame to get a speeding ticket here.

When I moved to Key West I brought 14 suits. I had two Donna Karan's, a couple of Ralph Lauren's, Alexander Julian, Hugo Boss, and others. They are all in a cedar chest. There is no place to wear them. I wear shorts in the summer and usually khakis in the winter. Designer labels aren't important like they used to be. But I still wear clean clothes and normally they are pressed. I am not alone. Most Key Westers dress down, not up. I doubt that the book "Dress for Success" had many buyers here.

Doing it doggie style in Key West

I don't have the need to "shop". I can buy what I need on the Internet. I need less living here. Really! I remember going shopping for hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. That is how many people up north in America spend their private time. Buying stuff. Here you need less stuff and you end up spending your time doing more fun things. Or nothing at all.

If you are in to social and political affairs, there are plenty of people with whom you can mix and do your thing. Or not. If you are into the outdoors and love to run, bike, workout, box, do yoga, sail, fish, or just boat, this island is full of similarly inclined folks that share your passion. If you are cerebral the arts community flourishes here. We have several theaters and our own symphony. Key West has lots of artists and writers that live part or all of the year here. We even have dress-up affairs where women wear gowns and gents wear tuxes. But you will also find people who don't participate in much of any thing, mind their own business, and wear the same clothes for several days in a row. It's not that they are anti-social, but they are just living their own lives.

Almost everybody dresses up for the annual Fantasy Fest People's Parade

In my old life I could be pretty demanding. Everything I did was important. Or so I thought. So I needed stuff done right away. Timing is important in what I do now, but either my advanced age or my acceptance that things move more slowly in Key West has made life (normally) much easier to accept. "Island time" is for real.


I have found the experience of living here to be more fulfilling than I ever imagined. It's the little things that happen every day (or every season) that make life in Key West so pleasant. Each morning around 8:00 AM a flock of sea gulls (I think that's what they are) sit atop the electric lines at the corner of Reynolds and Von Phister Streets awaiting their breakfast which is supplied by the guy who lives at the house on the corner. It's not uncommon to see an egret walking around the Casa Marina area. I've had blue crabs walk the four or five blocks from the ocean and end up in my pool. One even walked into my kitchen a few years ago. I've seen iguanas and even a raccoon in my yard. I don't like the frogs that screech in the night each summer but they eventually stop. Otherwise, the little animals and birds make life in Key West interesting and sometimes entertaining.

This iguana lives in the yard by my pool. Photo taken from pool at close range on a float.

A few blocks away on the corner of White at Virginia Street cops and construction workers and everybody else stops at Sandy's to get a cup of Con Leche or a buche. People in the nearby neighborhoods walk their dogs and say "Hello" as the pooches pee and sniff butt. The town comes alive as the cars, scooters and Conch Trains begin to move around. About eight hours later most locals return to home and tourists go to Sunset or a bar, or both. Dusk sets in and locals walk their dogs again and say "Hello" again. The traffic such as it is really shrinks to a snail's pace. Soon the sky is black and if you live in a place like the Casa Marina area, you can listen and hear nothing. You can sit outside by the pool and feel the gentle breeze and maybe see palm fronds waive just a bit. If the wind is strong enough you might hear the trees as they woosh.


Riding a bike in Key West is more than exercise or a convenient way to get from place to place. I get "mushy" when I ride my bike under the flowering trees. I think how lucky I am to live in a place this beautiful.

Bayview Park - Key West - Memorial Day 2010

I don't feel alone or isolated even though I live at the end of the world so to speak. I can get anywhere I need to go. But I have found that I don't need to go to as many places as I once did. Living in Paradise makes going other places kind of pointless. Seriously.

I do not miss the snow and cold of Denver. Nor do I miss the awful choking smog or the horrible traffic. I don't know how or why people live in places that are so far removed from where they work that they must endure commuting. I don't miss the crime and all of the people. Real life in Key West is much more fulfilling than I ever dreamt.


If you live in Wildwood, New Jersey or anyplace else and dream of someday moving to Key West, please consider using me, Gary Thomas, 305-766-2642 as your Buyer's Agent. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties Coastal Realty, Inc. in Key West. If you live in one of the ten worst cities in America, get the heck out. I don't want all of you coming here. But go someplace safe and live your lives more sanely.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love Wildwood. There's nothing better than walking on the boardwalk on a warm summer night... ducking into the "casino" arcades, going down the ride piers and playing some games, seeing the fireworks go off every weekend over the ocean, and smelling $1 slices of pizza waft through the air entwined with the aroma of funnel cake and zeppoli.

I love Key West. There's nothing better than walking down Duval Street on a warm winter night... ducking into bars, going down quiet little lanes to find a little hole in the wall cafe, seeing the gays be able to be themselves and enjoy a public kiss without anyone caring, and smelling fragrant flowers waft through the air entwined with the aroma of nature.

Ah yes, if only I had a private jet, and loads of money I would undoubtedly have the best of both worlds.

But since I don't have any of the above, I guess I'll just stick to puttering along until my day comes to kick back, relax and enjoy life to the fullest.

Anonymous said...

The photo is in front of the nice
Big White Church. " I have seen it all"

Anonymous said...

Great essay Gary! Well written and emotion evoking. Thanks for sharing it!

Anonymous said...

OK but several areas you failed to go into detail. Laguna has one thing over Key West - the ability to generate a decent income to maintain the lifestyle of living in a beach community. In Key West, if you come here with money in your pockets (having made it elsewhere) great; otherwise, don't expect to make you livelyhood on the island as it is expensive to live here. I have seen too many come here, stay a few years and be forced out because they can't get a decent job at anything over minimum wage. And most are college grads, paraprofessionals who are not able to live here at a rate above poverty level.

Also, you did name drop a bit with the designer duds but as someone who has lived here all their life you will not now nor every understand the class differences that are underneath the surface of this island. The haves against the have nots. The newbie rich who feel entitled to change the island to their own needs against the native Conchs (and proud of it!) who understand the rich history of the island.

And last, the one thing you must know and all those who come here must appreciate is that while you come here with stars in your eyes and dreams in your head, you will never really fit in as your history, heritage and background may allow you access but not to all areas. As a seventh generation Conch you will never share my intense being with this land. You can call yourself a fresh or salt water Conch but that is just a joke to us true natives; you will never be one just as I would never be part of your world in Denver.

Anonymous said...

Ouch, that's harsh.

As for the job situation, you'll rarely come out on top when you depend on others to buy your labor.

I can't stand when people complain about not being able to find a job or say they don't get paid enough. If you're not willing to go out and make it for yourself then you'll be forever stuck begging somebody else for a job and pay.

Anonymous said...

But that is the point - in the Florida Keys and Key West which rely heavily on tourism, are you really able to afford to live and why oh why do so on the dollars of others? Betting your life, your retirment and your peace of mind for you and your family on the charity or begging of others as their wait staff, bartender or bell hop is pathetic.

Go out and get a REAL job that pays you something with a 401K and health care benefits. Quit living off the govt. or the TIPS of others more fortunate. A local government, a federal position even the military where you do your 20 and you retire. No complaints - just do your job and shut up so you can enjoy life later. Save don''t spend. And quit the crap!

Sorry but in the Florida Keys and Key West most people don't get this concept and would rather take a handout than work.

Gary Thomas said...

That last anonymous comment is off base. I know a lot of people that live in Key West have several jobs so they (1) afford to live here and (2) save money or (3) send the extra money they make back home. I don't know anybody on the government dole. Except half the work force in Key West (Conchs who work for the city, the county, FKAA, Keys Energy, or various state jobs). The US military fills in the balance

Most of the people that read my blog are looking to move here not to "work" but to retire. And not to retire in the old sense of the phrase. Some plan on having an after-life where they work via the computer. Some may make monthly trips up north to earn the money to come back here where the money gets spent.

Some buyers are couples a few years apart in age. Maybe one has retired and the other has a few years left. Buying now while prices are much more affordable has caught on. The transition from part time to full time Key Wester is happening for a lot of people.

Gary

Anonymous said...

Yes but in order to afford to live in Key West you better have deep pockets / great pension and investments to live on OR be prepared to work day and night to stay afloat. And that my dear friends is NOT what living the life in Key West is about - you will never know what paradise is about if you don't see it because you work 80 hours a week in overworked/underpaid menial servant and labor intesive jobs to pay overpriced rent on a shack. Sorry Gary but this is why the island you so dream about and look at through rosy glasses is full of those that have and those that have not.

Anonymous said...

"Go out and get a REAL job that pays you something with a 401K and health care benefits. Quit living off the govt. or the TIPS of others more fortunate. A local government, a federal position even the military where you do your 20 and you retire. No complaints - just do your job and shut up so you can enjoy life later. Save don''t spend. And quit the crap!"
-----------

How are local business owners living off the government??

I think you're bitter, and I know you're way off base, so I'm not going to play into your game.

If Key West is so bad, pack up, move out and go some place else where you'll be happy.

Anonymous said...

Key West is unique and it's ridiculously expensive to live here. Housing costs are eventually going to ruin the true character of this island (some argue they already have). Realtors want to perpetuate this idea that it's a "bargain" to get a nice house for a million bucks, but the truth of the matter is that even many households with two professional, well-paying incomes are going to struggle to keep up with that size mortgage.

The market's going to continue to adjust downward through 2013. Hopefully, that will allow some of the Key West characters to remain here. Otherwise, we might as well move to Amelia Island.

Anonymous said...

I agree - Key West is NOT what it used to be and those that believe working 2 or 3 jobs in the service industry just to live in a world that is becoming more and more like Boca Raton south are just fooling themselves and the world. Key West was once a paradise, but even most of the gays have left for Fort Lauderdale. So many friends are now ex-patriots in 'real' paradise destinations in Central America where taxes are not existant, land is cheap, houses are plentiful and healthcare is free. They take their retirement, their investments, their pensions and go south to where it is still marvelous to live - like Key West was once. All that changed when tourism became the mantra, when the greedy investors and realtors got their hands in the market and when money was king and dollar signs filled their eyes. Shame on those who spoiled my island home.

Anonymous said...

News flash: Key West has never been what it once was! It has always been changing. There's no point fabricating dream landscapes (sorry Gary). Pick a decade of Key West history since 1820--you'll find stories of constant change, economic boom and bust, new arrivals layering on top of the older ones. Trying to make a living on this rock has always been tough and people have always been grabbing whatever they could get their hands on, from the early wreckers to Monique today! Some do their grabbing honestly, others don't.

Many Conchs, by the way, are happy to share their histories and their friendships with people who move here from elsewhere (such as myself), if they see that you are genuinely interested in and committed to the island. The Conch anon commenter who gleefully gloated that outsiders would never understand the "inner mysteries" has a narrow and shallow view of what community is all about.

Key West isn't paradise (neither is Costa Rica--read Sally O'Boyle's blog about the travails of living in CR). Nowhere is paradise. Get on with your life and enjoy each day!

Anonymous said...

We moved here last year and have made to feel very welcome by many Conchs. In fact, some of the people who have been most gracious are Conchs -- or people who've lived here for 20, 30 or 40 years or more.

We love it, despite its ills. We wish some homesellers would wake up and realize there's a big recession taking place right now so home prices would come down a bit more, but we love that after working hard all week it's like a mini-vacation every weekend.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, if you have lived here 20 years or 100 years IF YOU WERE NOT BORN HERE YOU ARE NOT A CONCH!

Please - I am sick and tired of this argument. As a SEVENTH GENERATION CONCH and PROUD of my history, Key West IS NOT what it once was I agree. We look back on our history and our lives and see things how we perceive them to be - not how they really were at the time. Therefore, we often look fondly upon events from our lives in a better light today than in the time they occurred.

As for property values, everyone is facing the results of the housing bubble bust. Key West is no exception and it will take years to see recovery. Will it be back to the days when you flipped and dipped? NO. Thankfully, the newbies who came to steal and deal lost their shirts in the process and have left for other waters.

Working hard is not an issue here in the Florida Keys. We have generations of hard working loving individuals who have made up the islands. Yes, there are families and generations of Conchs who hold positions in local government, utility boards, fire and police departments, banking and insurance and so on. We live here and we work here. And we will always be here.

So please - take your imagined ideas of how Key West should be and realize this is the US. It is Florida. It is Key West. And it ain't perfect. Just like anywhere, we have our problems and our concerns. The recession, the economy, higher taxes, lower wages, health care issues, etc. are a fact of life here or in your hometown. You can't escape it.

The stories of people running to Key West to escape life are just that - stories in the imagination of a wannbe poet Jimmy Buffett who gave nothing to this town but a lost salt shaker, a bad tourist bar and nightmare insane bunch of loony parrotheads dreaming of an idea he never could understand. Pirates, wreckers, poets, artists - yes we HAD them but that was yesterday and this is today. So get you head outta the sand, quit dreaming about the old and imagined and realize that Key West is not about that - it is about people living in a town doing day-to-day mundane stuff just to survive and live. No different than where you live essentially.

And please, don't give me that romantic notion about what you THINK it is like here unless you're in my shoes you don't know jack.

Lastly, remember, you could have come here day at the age of 1 day old and you know what? You are still NOT A CONCH - unless you were born here you will never make the grade.

Now lets end this crap trap and let Gary post about something else.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, if you have lived here 20 years or 100 years IF YOU WERE NOT BORN HERE YOU ARE NOT A CONCH!

Please - I am sick and tired of this argument. As a SEVENTH GENERATION CONCH and PROUD of my history, Key West IS NOT what it once was I agree. We look back on our history and our lives and see things how we perceive them to be - not how they really were at the time. Therefore, we often look fondly upon events from our lives in a better light today than in the time they occurred.

As for property values, everyone is facing the results of the housing bubble bust. Key West is no exception and it will take years to see recovery. Will it be back to the days when you flipped and dipped? NO. Thankfully, the newbies who came to steal and deal lost their shirts in the process and have left for other waters.

Working hard is not an issue here in the Florida Keys. We have generations of hard working loving individuals who have made up the islands. Yes, there are families and generations of Conchs who hold positions in local government, utility boards, fire and police departments, banking and insurance and so on. We live here and we work here. And we will always be here.

So please - take your imagined ideas of how Key West should be and realize this is the US. It is Florida. It is Key West. And it ain't perfect. Just like anywhere, we have our problems and our concerns. The recession, the economy, higher taxes, lower wages, health care issues, etc. are a fact of life here or in your hometown. You can't escape it.

The stories of people running to Key West to escape life are just that - stories in the imagination of a wannbe poet Jimmy Buffett who gave nothing to this town but a lost salt shaker, a bad tourist bar and nightmare insane bunch of loony parrotheads dreaming of an idea he never could understand. Pirates, wreckers, poets, artists - yes we HAD them but that was yesterday and this is today. So get you head outta the sand, quit dreaming about the old and imagined and realize that Key West is not about that - it is about people living in a town doing day-to-day mundane stuff just to survive and live. No different than where you live essentially.

And please, don't give me that romantic notion about what you THINK it is like here unless you're in my shoes you don't know jack.

Lastly, remember, you could have come here day at the age of 1 day old and you know what? You are still NOT A CONCH - unless you were born here you will never make the grade.

Now lets end this crap trap and let Gary post about something else.

Anonymous said...

Well, okay. I'm sure we can all agree that at least one Conch needs to take a Xanax. Next topic!

Gary Thomas said...

Well, okay. I'm sure we can all agree that at least one Conch needs to take a Xanax. Next topic!

lol

Anonymous said...

No meds needed as I see it from the Conch. Sounds like someone happy to be from Key West. And someone who has no delusions about living there. Same thing everywhere these days: just trying to survive, trying to be happy and that occurs whether in Key West or Denver or even small town USA.

Whatever floats your boat.....

Anonymous said...

Words to live by especially in the today's economy:

BUYING THINGS YOU DON'T NEED, WITH MONEY YOU DON'T HAVE, TO IMPRESS PEOPLE YOU DON'T LIKE. The mantra of the housing bubble.

Sad to say, the same goes for Key West. Do you really think it is different there than anywhere else in America?

Do you really think America is stronger when 40% of the population is one paycheck away from foreclosure or eviction?

Do you really think America is stronger when less than half of the population has a nest-egg that could sustain them for a month?

Do you think America is better when 43% of the population carries at least $8,000 in credit card debt?

Did any of you pay attention to the housing crisis? It hit Key West and hit it hard. So many foreclosures and short sales. Will the island bounce back? Yes, but not anyway soon I am afraid. Not with real estate.

The reality is, Americans are so universally indebted, that most of our assets are actually controlled by China, Saudi Arabia, and various foreign banks. Does this make us stronger?

Quit whining like babies who are afraid someone is going to take away their toys. Quit spending what you don't have. Quit being a sucker. Buy IF and on IF you truly can afford it and that is not a reality for most people.

Anonymous said...

Oh please - Gary isn't interest in this nor are most readers.

Gary - I loved the column and appreciate your take on the island and how it has changed your life. I read your column because you give a great insight on the world of real estate in Key West, love the properties you blog about and think someday.....ahh....

Anyway, I appreciate your opinions and insight and thank you for your thoughts.

I just had to say so.
A fan

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Gary Thomas in a Nutshell

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Key West, Florida, United States
I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.