Paradise Found, Paradise Paved

Remember the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot?” Well, that is what happens to most, if not all, things considered paradise. Back in the early 1960s my ship pulled into the Naval Station at Key West, Florida a few times. Key West at the time was a small town sitting on an island that was mostly mangrove swamp and marshes. There was a road that encircled the island and one that cut across it laterally. The open air bars and quaint sidewalks were not crowded and the natives were hospitable and mainly friendly.

The next time I made it to Key West was in the late 1990s and it was more of a concrete jungle than a paradise. Every inch occupied by a motel, hotel, t-shirt shop, carry-out, restaurant, Tiki bar, miniature golf course, shops selling key lime Kool-Aid and pie. The streets jammed with traffic, parking spots insufficient, and most natives having their hands extended and their smiles set on superficial.

That doesn’t mean a good time can’t still be had in Key West. But long ago Key West ceased to quality as a paradise. We humans spend much of our lives thinking about, wishing for, and even searching out a paradise for ourselves. Then, when someone actually discovers paradise, they go tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and in no time paradise is a parking lot.

This same thing applies to many good things. For years I’ve been watching the PBS classic, Austin City Limits and reading about how Austin, TX has become the mecca of live music in America. I’ve never been there but I’ve read about it and seen many TV spots about it. For decades now some of our best musicians have been converging on Austin and playing their chops on its street corners and in its bars and night spots. Out of this the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) has emerged and become one of the première musical gatherings in the world. Austin grew into a paradise for people who love to play music and those who love to listen to it.

Now for the paradise lost part. Austin’s reputation as a music and cultural center, a great place to settle, and a thriving economy, has made it a major attraction for those seeking the good life. As the population has grown and become richer, the cost of living has followed suit. I just read where it is now so expensive to live in Austin the musicians can’t afford to live there any longer. The cheap housing that put a roof over their heads is now being bulldozed to build upscale housing for the gentrified newcomers. In Texas parlance, paradise just took a .45 caliber bullet to the Tony Llama boot covering its right foot.

Same thing has happened to Key West and most of our coastal areas. The cost of owning property is so high, regular people, those who discovered paradise, can no longer afford to live there. So, where do those who tend bars, serve food, clean hotel rooms, play music, live? I noticed this fall while vacationing at Holden Beach, NC that “the other side of the tracks” is a mile or more west of the Intracoastal Waterway. The people who work on the island don’t live on the island and as these resort areas grow, the workers have to move further away and deal with increased expenses in getting to and from work.

In Key West the answer may be Stock Island which is the island one is on just before crossing the short bridge on to Key West. Driving around Stock Island the bulk of the land is taken up by densely packed mobile homes of dubious condition. Unless I’m not reading things correctly, this is where the Key West work force resides. There is also evidence that Stock Island is within the sights of the developers and if the economy ever recovers this bastion of affordable housing may fall victim to the builder’s bulldozer.

In places such as the Florida Keys, where land itself is so limited, how can working people maintain a hold? Businesses that cater to the wealthy tourist and property owners can’t possibly pay a wage high enough to permit service workers to afford living near where they work. You then have to ask, can you call a place paradise where you have to wash your own clothing, make your own bed, cook your own food, and pour your own Mai Tai from the blender.

If there is any lesson to be learned from any of this, maybe it is, if you are lucky enough to find your paradise, do not tell anybody about it. Put a zipper on your lips else somebody pave it over with asphalt!

Here’s a YouTube video of a small aircraft circling Key West on its approach to the local airport. Looks pretty paved to my eye but you be your own judge.

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