In today's paper:
Keys tourism born out of Depression
Other option suggested in crisis was to relocate all 11,600 residents
By MANDY BOLEN Citizen Staff
Article Tools The sparsity of "help wanted" ads in recent weeks has become a topic of conversation as well as a barometer of Key West's financial situation. Some Florida Keys families could not celebrate Christmas and food banks are running low on basic staples. Construction is all but halted, homes are not selling and would-be visitors are canceling vacation plans due to their own monetary struggles.
This is not the island's first brush with disastrous economics, and it likely will not be its last.
In fact, the Great Depression actually helped launch the tourism industry in Key West.
In the 1930s, 80 percent of the island's 11,600 residents were unemployed or on government relief rolls. President Herbert Hoover had pulled the military out of Key West, and the cigar-making industry had moved north to Tampa as the demand for cigarettes was replacing that for hand-rolled cigars. High tariffs on pineapples crippled the small pineapple canning industry, and the more technologically advanced Greeks arrived in Florida and took over the sponge-fishing trade.
It was the worst of times.
"The town was bankrupt, taxes could not be collected, garbage collection lapsed and rubbish had accumulated," John Janney wrote in 1936 in an article about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Key West, which paved the road for tourism. "Few cars moved about; not many could afford the luxury of gasoline. Business was done mostly on credit. Men swapped and borrowed and scrimped and tried to help the fellow next door -- for Key Westers are a generous people. There was courage, but there was also despair."
Change was in the air as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and Key West was ready to help bring about that change.
In July 1934, the Key West City Commission passed a resolution ceding its power to the governor of Florida, and then to the federal government, which would be providing the island's relief.
Tourism was not the first solution considered, however. The Florida Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was confounded by the financial problems of Key West, and at one point seriously considered evacuating the island and relocating all of its residents.
"Eliminating entirely the human element involved, this course would have only transferred the relief load to other cities and brought on new social problems," wrote Julius Stone, FERA administrator in December 1934. "This course of action is still a possibility and may be the ultimate solution; but it is being held in abeyance until we see whether or not the third proposal which is now being tried, at much less expense, works or fails."
A second option that Stone considered was continued provision of federal relief for the residents of Key West. Such a program would include medical care, as well as a diet consisting wholly of fish and fresh fruit in addition to any songbirds locals could shoot, Stone wrote.
Such a program would cost about $2.5 million over a five-year period, but "at the end of the five years, the inhabitants would be no better off than at the start for there would be no industry to absorb the unemployed," he wrote. "With no hope of an industrial revival, another solution had to be found."
The third option Stone refers to saved Key West, and changed it forever.
"The Relief Administration could attempt to rehabilitate the people of Key West in their own homes by bringing a new, non-manufacturing means of livelihood to Key West, namely, the tourist business," Stone wrote. "The natural assets of the city -- its delightful, equable climate, its historical background and indigenous architecture, its intangible charm, the beauty of the tropical foliage, to mention but a few -- seem to justify the experiment."
Stone knew his proposal would take money and hard work. Money was limited but workers were everywhere in Key West. Once the City Commission presented the proposal to the public, Key Westers, most of them already unemployed, volunteered to contribute free labor to the project. The citizens immediately pledged $900,000 worth of volunteer labor, Stone wrote.
The tourism rehabilitation of Key West had begun.
Vacant lots were cleaned, polluted cisterns were drained or destroyed, houses were painted and renovated to welcome overnight guests. Homeowners who could not afford to improve their properties were provided free labor and materials from FERA. The government kept part of the initial rental fees to repay the debt.
Musicians formed bands that played free concerts at a new bandstand in Bayview Park. A public swimming pool was built and a bathing beach was created at what is now Smathers Beach. The Key West Woman's Club increased the hours of the public library and free labor built a playground at the corner of Simonton Street and Division Street, now Truman Avenue.
The Key West Aquarium is one of the most lasting examples of the massive rehabilitation of an entire city. The original aquarium, completed in 1934, was an open-air facility using its waterfront location to capture and display tropical fish. The first curator actually collected tropical fish and sent them to aquariums in Philadelphia and Chicago.
Today's aquarium, in the original location, features historical photos of the original structure. Today's facility is more than twice its original size and features a roof for year-round visitors regardless of the weather. It now is owned and operated by Historic Tours of America, and often offers free admission to Key West residents on Sundays.
Art draws tourists
The 10 WPA artists of Key West famously painted their own interpretation of the island city. Once their works were exhibited locally, they were sent to galleries and museums throughout the country to let others know about the Southernmost City.
"The exhibits were sent north, and in that way fulfilled the desire of the outsiders who have been roused by the sociological experiment here to know what Key West looks like," Stone wrote in "Key West in Transition" in 1934.
The artists also painted murals on public and semi-public buildings, beach pavilions and the aquarium. They improved billboards and other signage throughout the city.
"At land's end and hope's end, Key West turns the tables on depression," Janney wrote, calling it "an inspiring story of how a community, all hands together, can conquer despair."
People came. Key West survived, and, some would say, it always will.