Key West: Manhattan but no skyscrapers

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers.

It’s a comparison helpful in explaining why Key West isn’t Florida. The cheek-by-jowl closeness of houses whose neighbors share their breakfast flavors and domestic squabbles – and hear their toilets flush at bedtime.

The dissonance of a dozen different languages and a hundred regional accents competing down Duval Street from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. The theater and the art galleries, the music, five-star restaurants and corner coffee shops, the ethnic neighborhoods, festivals and parades.

Breathtaking wealth juxtaposed against crushing poverty. Jaw dropping real estate prices where 600-square-feet and no outdoor space top half a million – plus condo fees.

It’s the idea, as one long-time Key West resident puts it, that the man with whom you’re discussing the relative value of apples at Fausto’s, the local boutique grocer, might well have had dinner with the Queen of England the day before.

At 22.7 square miles, much of it covered with concrete and asphalt, Manhattan long ago forgot it was an island. Not so much Key West.

Key West looks out its 4.2-square-miles of collective windows each morning across open water closer to Cuba than Miami. Key West knows it’s one hurricane, one storm tidal surge, away from trading its multi-million dollar economy for a spit of sand and a handful of palm trees.

Climate change and sea level rise are dinner table conversations in Key West.

There are the oh-so-awares who might happily nail up the NIMBY signs just below the Seven Mile Bridge, or maybe closer in at Stock Island. No trespassers beyond this point.

There is the economic development crowd for whom finding a viable balance between preserving the environment and boosting the economy ends them all too often in a no-win controversy, painted (sometimes fairly; sometimes not) as putting cash before conservation.

There are those who work the tourist trade, who fish and dive, clean the parks and renovate the houses. All know climate change and sea level rise will alter how their grandchildren live on this island.

Key West disagrees, often heatedly, about solutions. The unarguable effects are so far in the future, there’s no shortage of “don’t worry; be happy.” But, everyone knows that someday a hospital, a school, the favorite tourist haunts will be awash.

Hurricane Sandy reminded Manhattan the last week of October that it, too, is an island, subject to the vagaries of salt water, tides and wind that Key West takes in stride.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasted no time as he made clear that climate change and sea level rise were instrumental in driving the violence of the storm that paralyzed his city.

Hurricane Sandy afforded Bloomberg a bully pulpit to re-up on the 197-page, 2011 update to his original 2007 PlaNYC 2030 comprehensive, quality of life project.

On Nov. 1, Bloomberg wrote on

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Key West has its own climate action plan. Monroe County is completing its. The Southeast Florida Four County Region has one.

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers. Both facing the same challenges of climate change and sea level rise – and both prepared to find solutions.

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