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KONK REACTOR column
[Published in the KONK Life newspaper on December 6, 2012.]
It Breaks a Village
Hillary’s expression “It takes a village [to raise kids]” is turned on its head in Key West. The (grown) children of the community must work to foster the village itself – especially the oldest neighborhood on the island: Bahama Village. I ashamedly have to admit, though, that our neglect has broken this Village…
The Bahama Village neighborhood dates back to the earliest days of our settlement and once covered the westernmost quarter of the populated island (when New Town was a salt marsh). Many descendents of African/Caribbean settlers ended up in this neighborhood. Over time, the Navy and developers extracted land from it and cut off its direct access to the open water. But even under the racial segregation practices commonplace up to the 1960s, the neighborhood thrived.
Emma Street was the hub, and the VFW/American Legion hall there pulled in big acts like James Brown and BB King. There was a theater and local shops and tradesmen. Eventually the “black high school” – Frederick Douglas — was built there. And nearby within the Village were over a dozen churches and the community pool. Though the houses were (and still are) closely crowded and often not in the best state of repair, the community as a whole was vibrant.
Somewhere on the path between there and here, something got out of whack. Some “blame” desegregation for a slip in the cultural aura as the community became more diverse. The long-time families like the Majors and Butlers and Chapmans and Mobleys are still around, but others have moved on. On-again off-again gentrification and the high cost of living on this island dispersed many old family clans. And many jobs were lost with the reduction in work after the Navy’s presence scaled back. Similar to our country’s bigger inner-cities, bad elements began infiltration of Balama Village. (I must say though that most agree that recent Police diligence has greatly reduced such activity.)
A valiant effort to keep old families in their homes – the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust — was set up. The Trust would buy the LAND out from under the homes of families getting purchase offers from speculators carrying suitcases full of cash. In exchange for deed restrictions, they could then pay nominal rent on the land ($50 a year or so) and remain in their homes. The BCCLT acquired dozens of such houses. But with a lack of clear support by the City, combined with an overwhelmed Trust manager, the BCCLT eventually went bust. (See other stories in my Reactivity archive for more on the BCCLT.)
The lack of clear support for BCCLT has been indicative of the City’s support for the Village as a whole. Though a “Tax Increment Financing” process was set up to return tax money to the Village for special projects, there has been little follow-through beyond the (often protracted) allocation of the funds. Several landmarks HAVE made use of the funds, but the once mighty American Legion Hall – has been condemned due to a lack of overt action by the City. In all fairness, the Legion management was highly inept, but the City COULD have stepped in to help keep this historic cultural institution afloat.
Another fiasco in progress is the state of the Frederick Douglas Gym, the remaining component of the High School that was shut down after desegregation. That Gym is the HUB of activity for the kids in the Village, hosting many sports and educational events, daily recreation and learning. Over 5 years ago Commissioner Lopez warned the City about roofing problems there, but maintenance never happened. Now the roof is starting to crumble and parts of the facility are closed off. The entire gym could be closed down if this neglect is not rectified.
There HAVE been some success stories in the Village, such as the restorative work on the community pool and the updated affordable housing by the Housing Authority. The City needs to pay more attention to MAINTAINING the public works of the Village though, to avoid further breakage.
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