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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Key West with One Regret

Twenty Six years ago this month I sat foot on the Island of Key West for the very first time. I had read about Key West a few years earlier in a magazine called "After Dark". Things were different back then. We did not have 24 hour per day news channels and travel channels to tell us about the world. We had to read magazines and books. The photos above are from the Jnuary 1978 issue I read. (That's Randy from The Village People in the top photo doing a Key West photo shoot for the article.) Those pics attracted my attention, but it was the story inside about Key West that made me decide that I must see this place for myself. It took me too long to make the trip, but the wait was worth it.

I drove down from Miami and thought, if I didn't like Key West, I could return to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the second week of my vacation. When I got to Key West, I did what any red blooded American guy would do. I didn't read the map. I guessed which direction to take. I drove south along the ocean side and ended up in no man's land somewhere. I was really upset. I thought I had made a horrible mistake coming here. I kept driving west and eventually found Duval (this is an island after all). Then I found the cross street where my guest house was located. I checked in and started to decompress. Within hours there was no stress at all. Like every other first time tourist I walked up and down Duval Street and some of the side streets taking in the still "beat" feeling that existed at that time. The town had not been gentrified the way it is now. Some places like Jerry Herman's two sisters houses at the corners of Fleming and Elizabeth were redone. But so many more houses looked like they were ready to fall down. The sidewalks were cracked and falling apart. When you walked down the sidewalks at night Palmetto bugs (dozens of them) would litter the sidewalks. The sidewalks are fixed now and the bugs are gone. Thank God on both accounts.

Each day brought a new discovery. I met new friends at the guest house. Together we found great restaurants to enjoy and together created wonderful memories of one of my best vacations ever. I met some locals and got invited to a party at a really swank Casa Marina home. I attended Tea Dance at La Te Da. (They held Tea Dance on both Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. The town was hopping!) I made the nightly trek to the COPA and the other bars that existed back then. There was a place called Michael's on Duval Street. The Old Plantation and another bar called Papillion were popular as well, but now they are now gone. The Monster had burned down a year or so before. So I only learned of it by legend. I made the pilgrimage to Atlantic Shores and was amazed at the mass of naked people, many college kids and locals, hanging out listening to loud disco music in the daytime.

I'm not a party person, but I started thinking "I could live here." Then it became "I want to live here." It wasn't about the bars or the booze or the sun. It wasn't about the beautiful old houses or tall palm trees or the ocean. It was about the way that the People that live in Key West relate to where they live and how they relate to each other. I found Paradise.

It took me nine years of screwing around making goof-ball offers on real estate before I bought my first property. I was always trying to get the best deal. That got me no deal for nine years. Then I got lucky. Real lucky. I bought a foreclosed guest house at an SBA (Small Business Administration) auction in 1993. I aggressively outbid the others in attendance. I moved to Key West the week before Christmas. So many great properties had slipped through my hands. I wasted nine years in the cold winter snows. Nevermore.

Look at the photo just below. My Realtor called me about it when in got listed in 1987 for the asking price of $280,000. She asked if I remembered the property. Of course I did. It was the grimy Q Rooms at 600 Fleming Street. I told her drug addicts lived there and that I wanted no part of it. She implored me to reconsider. I would have none of it. I knew better! (What a pompous idiot I was.)

The Q Rooms in 1987

Some buyers much smarter than I snapped the Q Rooms up in a flash. They renovated the place on the inside and spiffed it up on the outside. They added a pool and even added a restaurant on the corner. They created The Marquesa Hotel. Later they acquired two additional parcels of ground and did some additional renovation and more new construction. They turned $280,000 into a landmark which is also a goldmine.

The Marquesa Hotel - March 2011

I have a lot of stories about other places I missed buying. I drive past many of them on a near daily basis. I sometimes muse what might have been. It's the same thing I sometimes do when thinking of relationships that could have happened or could have been avoided if only....

A reader who became a buyer who is now a friend sent me a newspaper article about Key West that appeared in The Guardian earlier this year. CLICK HERE to read Edmund White's account of his ongoing relationship with Key West. While White does not cite the address of where he lived in 1979, I am pretty sure it is 1327 White Street (our current listing) since there are only three houses located across from the church he wrote about and only 1327 is as large as the house he described. White's nostalgia for what was is understandable. I miss the same things he misses. Much of Key West has become too gentrified. Too many people want to turn simple old houses into show places. Too many nasty tee shirt shops on Duval spoil our little town. Too many scooters and electric cars create too much traffic. Cruise ships inundate lower Duval Street with too many day trippers. Thank God for hurricanes and hot September days when town goes back to normal.

I found and saved some photos online of Old Town Key West that were taken by others around 1978. Here are a few.

300 block of William Street - Key West - 1978

300 block of William Street - 1978 - Key West

This Key West house now has a big fence in front but not when photographed in 1978

I lament the loss of what once was Key West including the fact that cats and dogs can no longer lay in the middle of Fleming Street to take a nap. I will always remember my Realtor picking me up at the Cypress House to take me to the airport after a buying trip that crapped out. We were going down the street and she had to stop her car to wait for a dog to wake up and move out of the way.

Nothing stays the way it was forever. Times and people change. The old houses of Key West look pretty much the same today as they did a hundred years ago except now they get painted more regularly and have lush gardens and pools. The college crowd and tourists still flock to Key West in March to greet Spring with a Key West tan and enough experiences to make them wish they could live in a place like Key West forever.

If you are looking to buy a place in Key West, please consider working with me, Gary Thomas. I am a buyer's agent and a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties Coastal Realty, Inc. in Key West, Florida. The only regret about my move to Key West is that it took me nine years to do it.


Anonymous said...

Love your story! Wish our contract to sell our house last spring had gone through and that we, too, could be relishing the warmer (than west central Florida!) weather and great times in Key West... It's too frigging cold here!


Anonymous said...

Really nice walk down memory lane, Gary. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nice but the powers that be in Key West government want to forget the pass and bring on the future with more cruise ships, more bikers, more tourists, more money for the town. That means our little Key West will start looking like Miami south soon.

Can you imagine how much worse our town can be? I have lived here all
my life and never have I seen this town packed with more cheap crap on Duval Street storefronts and more cheap looking tourists than this winter. Awful.

I wish yesteryear was today and we knew then what we know now - Key West would have taken a totally different direction. How sad we forget how nice this town used to be and how horrible it is becoming. Let's hope it is not too late to change.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Key West in the late 1960s and it was very interesting. Thinking about a place in past years can be fun but also sad. Now that I am a senior citizen and retired, I think I might like to spend winters there.


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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.