“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West.
Key West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations.
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.
WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.
WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.
WHERE: MM0, at the end of US 1.
BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”
WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists.
FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.
MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.