Key West: at the tipping point

Even though it was just a little more than five years ago, the details of my only other trip to Key West are sparse in my memory.  Watching my daughter, Rachel, and our exchange student from Kiev, Taya, get their turn at steering the schooner we rode on a sunset cruise, going for my morning walk in the company of the street cocks and hens, while the rest of the town slept, having an argument with my daughter over her need to eat a bag of potato chips (a bad mother moment indeed) at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Beach, and the endless crowds parading up and down Duvall Street, their serving steps and boisterousness attesting to the alcohol allure of this town are the residue of a vacation that was good enough to lead me back.

The reward of a defective long-term memory is that I currently feel as if I am experiencing a virgin visit to Key West.  Having bicycles in tow this time enabled Mordi and I to explore the island more completely than before.  The beauty of Atlantic and Roosevelt Avenues was breathtaking, and it was great to commute to dinner and even a late-night movie in a town with a steady stream of flashing bicycle tail and headlights.  I walked long and fast and pedaled hard in order to justify the time spent in Cuban and Caribbean eateries feasting on garlic shrimp, hogfish, and key lime pie.  The Atlantis Guest House was our personal Shangrila, where we have spent many hours lingering in the gardens reminiscent of the rain forests of Costa Rica.

Amid all the beauty, however, a simmering irritation has gnawed at me like a growling stomach each time I find myself among the crowds of tourists in a traffic jam of open-air tour trains and trolleys that seem to appear from every narrow street corner, each one crammed with people listening to the stereo sounds of tour guides pointing out the watering holes of the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.  Our innkeeper remarked that the town tried to block the newest bus on the block, but the owners of the Key West Duck Tour sued the island for 23 million dollars for their right to join the party.

Key West, I have noted, is not the only destination to succumb to the lowest common denominator of tourism for the masses.  Even towns like Charleston, South Carolina, with its colorful array of local shops and restaurants now sports a King Street with blocks of mall venues, such as The Gap, Cache, and Banana Republic.  On my Friday night walk down Lincoln Road in South Beach, where I’m sure Mordi and I were the oldest members of a continuing parade of partying tourists, I noted about a mile of nothing but mall establishments  on both sides of the road. No sooner had I exclaimed, “They should call this the Lincoln Road Mall,” then I looked up and found the sign that told me indeed, this was the namesake of this famous street!

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when walking down an almost empty Duvall Street, on my first early morning in Key West, to discover in succession a Claire’s, Chico’s, Subway, Wendy’s and an old movie theater whose red neon marquee letters announced the newest occupant: Walgreen’s.  Duvall Street is not exactly fashionista avenue, but I can tolerate the tacky t-shirt and souvenir shops, that share the block with colorful art galleries, like the one where I bought a watercolor of a Caribbean sunset splashed with the turquoise, corals and clarity of light that make this island so special.  I can’t fathom buying a souvenir pair of earrings at Claire’s or a Key West gift for my daughter at Chico’s.  My husband says, “There’s a market for these places,” and I have to admit I don’t get it.  Yet, increasingly local businesses everywhere are falling victim to the lure of high rents that only big name “chains” can afford.  We are at a tipping point, where I fear that the demand for sameness threatens to make places like the Old Town Bakery and Sandy’s Original Cuban Sandwiches relics of a time when travel was a voyage to feast on the local vibe, a chance to experience the uniqueness that adds to our experience of a diverse country.

I live in a community whose motto is, “Buy Local,” yet Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, Eileen Fisher and CVS are flourishing on Main Street .When I take my daily walk downtown, I pass the many cafes, art galleries, and local restaurants, wondering which of these local establishments will be alive five, maybe ten years from now.  Who will take up the cause to rescue the endangered Main, King, Lincoln and other local streets of the U.S.?

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