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As Prices Soar, Middle Class Is Locked Out of Key West

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Fast Eddy isn’t toiling at a waterfront deli, he’s usually contemplating life from a sagging lawn chair outside a rickety trailer home, the only rental he can afford.

Fast Eddy, known to his parents as Keith D. Bahnemann, is about to become history, in a manner of speaking, as the park prepares to fade away in one of the hottest real estate markets in America.

Key West, the last stop in an archipelago of dozens of little islands, is changing rapidly--a significant footnote in Florida’s history for the millions of American tourists who’ve been here and for the many sailors who’ve served at the nearby Naval Air Station during World War II and since.

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The loss of available housing for the middle class may be best represented by the disappearance of a dozen or so trailer parks in Key West over the last two decades.

“Wealthy people want to live here, and they don’t want to live in trailer homes. It’s as simple as that,” says Joseph Pais of the Key West Art and Historical Society. “Real estate is increasing in value at a rate of 30% a year.”

Fast Eddy, who takes home about $200 a week from his $6-an-hour job at the deli, is unable to afford the entire rent for the trailer at the Key West Trailer Park. He shares the two-bedroom wreck with a buddy who works at a Circle K convenience store.

Fast Eddy and others at the park pay $160 a week on average for the rent-a-wreck mobile homes, which are 30 to 40 years old. The tenants are taxi drivers, plumbers, electricians, restaurant workers and clerks.

The property owner will not renew the park’s lease when it expires June 30.

“We’ve all been out looking for places to live,” Fast Eddy says. “You can’t find a cheap place. They all want $2,000, $3,000 a month and they want first month’s rent, last month’s and a month for security deposit. Now, do I look like a man who has $9,000 cash?”

Once an earthy--some may even say seedy--enclave for mercenaries, adventurers, pirates, Prohibition rumrunners, smugglers and Cuban revolutionaries, Key West is becoming a squeaky clean tourist haven, promoted by wealthy developers. The coral island’s bountiful greenery has been largely replaced by asphalt and concrete.

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This is bad news for novelists.

This is where Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams and other writers and poets came for inspiration. They didn’t get it rubbing shoulders with the rich or going to strip malls.

The pirates are gone, of course, and the criminal element has mostly vanished. Key West’s appeal today is its Old Town, with white wood-frame houses, including Ernest Hemingway’s old home, and places where nine presidents have slept. There are also museums, a restored lighthouse and other attractions.

But what makes Key West special--what’s in danger of being lost--is the easy mix of rich and poor, black and white, Pais says. A millionaire would have his home next door to a ramshackle house landscaped with junk, and the owners would probably go fishing together, he says.

“Sadly, we’re seeing that change now,” says Pais, a member of the Key West Planning Commission. “Newcomers are very, very wealthy. They fly in here, look at homes for eight hours, buy one and they’re out of here.”

Locals were both curious and shocked a couple of years ago when a blue-turbaned visitor popped into town and bought 102 acres, including the Little White House of Harry S Truman, a vacation getaway for the former president.

The fascination quickly turned to disdain when the new owner fenced off areas that were part of Key West’s heritage.

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Pais has fought, unsuccessfully, the big seaside hotel developments--”They block our ocean breezes”--and the steady elimination of available housing for the working class.

Trailer park manager Bob Testen, who has the lease on the Key West Trailer Park where Fast Eddy lives, spends his days trying to keep the aging trailers livable.

A dabbler at life, he left Chicago at 18, studied art in New York, painted in Italy for a few years, went to Suriname in South America to work in a shrimp-processing plant, bought three old shrimp boats, sold them and then became a partner in a little gold mine in Guyana.

Testen owns 41 trailers and leases the property from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which is next door. The church has said it will not renew the lease, which expires June 30. It isn’t saying what it will do with the land.

“The church wants to keep it private,” said Ed Knight, a Key West real estate salesman and St. Mary’s member who’s on the church commission dealing with the trailer park.

Other trailer parks that began cropping up after World War II ended and that have been swept away by the wave of development have been replaced by restaurants, hotels and stores.

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The Key West Trailer Park is part of the bucolic scene, with a rusting 1969 Plymouth Fury parked just outside the gate--permanently, it appears.

The upscale scene is just next door at a French cafe and just down the street where rooms in two-story white guest homes go for $300 a night during the winter.

Eddy--he doesn’t use his real name--is what some would call an old hippie. He doesn’t mind. At 53, he likes sandals and cutoffs and a blue bandanna around his forehead to keep his gray, wiry hair under control. He likes to hang out at Boston Billy’s blues bar.

He spins good yarns about his days of protests and working in the steel shops in Minneapolis for 30 years.

“I’m an ex-angry young man who always had his fist in the air about everything. You know, Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson. Pinstripe suits.”

Now he understands how things are in the world.

“I’m just a working-class jerk. I’ll work for anyone. I don’t care if it’s Walt Disney himself.

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“But I can’t afford to live here on $6 an hour. About half of us here in the trailer park will be leaving the island when the lease is up.”

Pais says a proposal before the City Council to approve construction of dormitory-style apartment houses where several rooms would share a bathroom has not been well received.

Pais prefers what he calls “linkage.” Future hotels, restaurants and other developments would be required to build housing for their low-income workers. But he fears that the City Council is delaying action so developers can get started on new projects and not be affected by any new restraints.

Meanwhile, as availability of affordable housing shrinks, Pais wonders, “Who will keep our tourist industry running when people can’t afford to live here any longer?”

Fast Eddy puts it another way:

“Who’s going to serve people their $32 meals? Wash the dishes? Make their beds?”

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