Key West

In a community of sun-seekers and tourists, one man goes to extremes to stand up for his island home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HARRY POWELL is in jail. The former Key West city commissioner carried dynamite and a gasoline can into a construction trailer at Peary Court here one morning in mid-January.

Construction of United States Navy housing units at the site came to a halt. Was that really dynamite strapped to Mr. Powell's chest? Were those blasting caps in his hand? Construction workers fled. Powell picked up the phone and started negotiating with the police.

His objection was the development of the 29-acre parcel of land that belonged to the Navy. At one time the land had been leased by the city for $1 a year. It was one of the few open spaces left on this fragile, almost fully developed, amoeba-shaped island measuring four miles long by roughly 1 1/2 miles wide. Powell and others have fought the housing plan for years.

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``Harry became obsessed with it,'' says Jack Lawson, an environmental writer who lives in Key West. ``Everybody kept telling him to forget it. Peary Court was a done deal. He kept saying, `No, it can't be.' ''

Powell was willing to carry his convictions to the next level, a Key West version of civil disobedience enhanced by dynamite, therefore a criminal act. He wanted a commitment from the US General Accounting Office (GAO) and US Sen. Connie Mack (R) to review the alleged ``sub-standard'' housing project to determine if it was really needed.

In many ways Powell represents the character of Key West at its best and worst. The dilemma is this: how to protect the delicate environment of a charming little island, and at the same time balance contemporary political and economic pressures.

Key West is really a small town at the very tip of the Florida keys - 150 miles by car down Highway 1 - with an air of languid, palm-frond charm. This is not mainstream anything, except that people need jobs, and tens of thousands of tourists need hotels.

Key West is more of an attitude, mellow and friendly, a ``conch'' attitude, which is the term for natives and the culture in general. If islands were parts of speech, Key West would be a verb. Southern in demeanor, the island is chock-full of gregarious northern escapees and expatriates. Also, a large gay community is part of the island.

In 1821 an American businessman, John Simonton, bought the island for $2,000 from Spain. In succession the island was headquarters for an anti-pirate squadron, a Union port during the Civil War, a cigar-making center, a sponge capital, a World War II military base, and now a tourist destination.

Population today: 25,000. Economic base: about 3 million tourists a year. Real estate: booming. Architecture: 3,100 historical, mostly wood-frame Victorian, Queen Anne and Bahamian structures. Average temperature: around 79 degrees. Transportation: boats, bicycles, scooters, snorkeling. Best restaurants: at least 20 qualify. Place to be at dusk: Mallory Square to watch the sun go down. Nearest country: Cuba, 90 miles south.

In April of 1982, in an effort to stop drug trafficking and illegal aliens coming up the Keys, the US government set up a roadblock on Highway 1, effectively severing Key West from the world for a few days. No problem. Key West renamed itself the ``Conch Republic,'' declared war on the US, then surrendered, and asked for foreign aid.

The special Key West difference has attracted the famous as well as Harry Powell. Ernest Hemingway lived, fished, and wrote here for years. President Truman summered here and played poker into the night with his cronies. Poet Robert Frost often visited here. Philosopher John Dewey wintered on Dey Street. Playwright Tennessee Williams lived on and off the island for 30 years on Duncan Street. Thornton Wilder wrote ``The Matchmaker'' here. Thomas Edison was a resident for six months.

So Harry Powell, a man with endless energy, a jack-of-all-trades, a married man with a motorcycle and two Irish setters, stopped construction at Peary Court because he doesn't want any more development on the island.

The Navy insists that three years of delays caused by Powell and other environmentalists have cost taxpayers at least $4 million. When there is no housing for enlisted personnel, said a Navy spokesman, the Navy has to pay housing allowances of around $1,000 a month.

``You do whatever you think you have to do to live in Paradise,'' says Dennis Cooper, editor and publisher of Key West, one of the island's two weekly newspapers. ``Harry protested through the right channels for years, and one day he just lost it.''

According to the US Census Bureau, the changes in Key West also speak through statistics. Between 1980 and 1990 median household income on the island rose from $12,900 to $28,121. And the median monthly rent went from $255 a month to $608. Median mortgage payments rose from $331 to $966.

``Real estate prices are going out of sight,'' Mr. Cooper says. ``The old historical houses are protected and can't be torn down. They have to be renovated, which means affordable housing is harder to find. Because this is becoming a service town, the people who work here have to have two jobs and six friends to rent the houses.''

So Harry Powell is fighting a classic economic shift. Across the US the story is the same. An older town is discovered, exclaimed over, and promoted. Gentrification takes place. Real estate booms and development increases. Property taxes go up. Open land disappears. The volume of sewage rises. Airport use quadruples. And here on a very small, lovely, spirited island stakes are much higher than on the mainland.

Harry Powell is still in jail. When the police assured him that the GAO would look into the Navy construction at Peary Court, Powell put down the dynamite late in the afternoon and ended his protest. Taken away by the police, he was denied bond by a judge. ``They'll probably give him some jail time,'' writer Lawson says. ``It's too bad he had to break the law.''

Meanwhile, construction at Peary Court has continued.

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