ey West can boast of the most unusual and eclectic population
of any American city. "Key West isn't Florida," says
a young boy in Joy Williams' short story, "The
Blue Men." And it's true. With its cosmopolitan
and well-educated population, its something
of a cultural Noah's Ark adrift in the
Gulf of Mexico-sending out white doves
which always seem to loop back and nest
in the branches of its own sturdy banyan
trees. Visitors always seem amazed at how
many Key Westers they encounter who inform
them, "I came down for a weekend six years
ago..... and I'm still here." Something
indefinable - a balance of exotic remoteness,
cultural marginality, and artistic intellect
- beckons many to Key West, where, until
recently, the Sunday New York Times often
arrived on Monday and local phone numbers
contained only five digits.
The native population,
those born on the island, refer to themselves
as "Conchs" and
represent a unique mix of Bahamian, Cuban, and New England seafaring heritage.
Many well-known Conch families have been here for seven or more generations.
Some confess to having never been off the island.
It has also
attracted generations of artists and writers
who popularized the mythology of the island.
Key West has been home to Ernest Hemingway,
Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, John
Ciardi, John Hersey, Richard Wilbur, Philip
Caputo, Alison Lurie, James Merrill, and Thomas McGuane, among many others.
More Pulitzer Prize winners have lived
in Key West per capita than in any other
also crosses into popular culture. Novels,
movies and television programs set in Key
West have introduced many to the island
indirectly. Pop star Jimmy Buffett's lament
of being "Wasted away again Margaritaville," has become
a landmark goal of many visitors.
Key West is
also known for its sizable, accepted, and
openly gay population which has contributed
greatly to the island's burgeoning tourism
and business community.
reputation for being "laid-back," Key Westers are hard-working people.
They have to be. Virtually everything on the island has to be imported on a one-way
truck. Add to that the desirability of island property and it is easy to understand
why the cost of living is the highest in the state. With tourism as its only
true economic base, and relatively low-paying tourism related jobs as the most
common denominator, it is clear why many members of the working population hold
two or more jobs in order to live in, what they consider paradise.