One of the first things I noticed returning to Key West after almost a year in Central America is the number of shiny new public buildings in town. Almost all public buildings in Costa Rica have a humble, flaking-paint shabbiness about them that seems to assure the locals they are not overspending to be bossed around. Here the government is living large, and bossing us around more than ever.
The US Weather Service Hurricane Shrine on White Street steps nicely outside the recent bombproof-bunker trend in government architecture, pouring tax dollars into a sculptural monument to bad weather. On the other hand, the Homeland Security building perched on stilts over the hallowed ground of the former Hukilau looks like a gun emplacement. Painting it pale yellow is the architectural equivalent of putting daisy stickers on your M-16. At the new Poinciana School cheerful tropical colors fail to mitigate an undeniable concrete authoritarianism.
I think of it as the Painted Trollop School of public works design, paint and plaster striving to hide a sordid truth.
Local politics continue to amuse. An apparent check forger won a seat on the school board while the county commission turned a Stock Island property owner into a lottery winner, paying millions for a piece of land the county doesn’t need and no one wants. The parcel features a tiny patch of waterfront remarkable for the number of floating fish heads that wash ashore and for a uniquely industrial sunset view. I understand the land and the dilapidated wood structure on it will be “preserved” for posterity.
On my first day in town a newly elected commissioner got some front page space for proposing to protect his own business with an ordinance that would drastically limit property rights. The good commissioner was wringing his hands over a possible dire shortage of drunks and wet T-shirt contestants if the appalling trend in condo conversions continues. Heaven forefend such a curse.
The commissioner needn’t fret, however, with a five year real estate inventory on offer and thousands of condos in the pipeline the frenzy to sell hotel rooms for $1500 a square foot should resolve itself into a frenzy of lawsuits against developers, realtors and mortgage brokers. This will probably happen long before the commish runs out of coeds with fake ID’s.
The commissioner’s proposal confirms one of O’Boyle’s theories of social trend spotting (OTOSTS). The theory says that government actions are accurate counter-indicators of social moods and trends. If a government agency or commission makes a proposal to take advantage of or limit a trend, you can be sure the trend has peaked and will soon be over. Since the commission is proposing to end condo conversions, it’s a near certainty they are doomed anyway.
Interestingly, the end of the trend the commissioner now thinks will continue forever, the Great Keys Real Estate Bubble (GKREB), was the inspiration for my family’s adventure in Central America. Returning now, I’m not surprised to see the GKREB deflating predictably, with enormous inventories of unsold property and a local government, woozy with windfall property taxes, expanding aggressively as the population shrinks.
Prices climb a wall of worry, as the saying goes, and slide down a slope of hope. Hope is palpable in the conversations I’ve had since returning, conversations that still swirl around the heady values imagined for a common mix of dirt, brick, nails and wood. Hope is a word that appears with surprising regularity in e-mails I receive from people with property for sale all over Florida and elsewhere. A lack of worry and abundance of hope is a clear trend indicator.
But for all that, I’m a great fan of hope. Though it can be ruinously harmful in making financial decisions, hope remains essential for facing an uncertain future and maintaining the eccentric grace and good humor I’ve always loved in the people who make this peculiar rock their home.
I’m enjoying seeing old friends and being back on this little island paradise that I fell in love with more than 30 years ago. I hope to induce those friends to visit or even move to my new love, Costa Rica, a place with much the same charm of a Key West now long gone.
If you can’t visit Costa Rica, however, I hope all of you, my loyal readers, will join me for the First Annual Hal O’Boyle Blue Paper Happy Hour and Bar Fight (FAHOBBPHHABF). My always encouraging editor, Dennis Cooper, has finally offered to compensate me for three years as house curmudgeon with a meal and a drink. Apparently the occasional letter calling for my beheading has not convinced him that very many people read this column. A good turn out will earn me another sandwich and a beer in three years.
It will take place at Seaweeds at the Blue Lagoon Hotel on N. Roosevelt Blvd., on Monday evening, December 11, at 5:30 pm. It will be my last night in Key West before returning to San Jose for what will probably be a good long time.
For your safety and amusement my stunt double will be tending bar and all attendees are encouraged to carry firearms. I hope you will join me to lift a glass to Key West past and future. I will not try to sell you a book.