McCoy: ‘Bubbaism’ was not always a dirty word

Early Key West was slow town where Navy ruled

Keynoter Staff WriterJuly 11, 2008 

Key West City Commissioner Merili McCoy has a vivid recollection of what her city was like 50 years ago. And she doesn’t hesitate to use it when the commission has to grapple with tough issues of growth and buildout.

But Merili remembers more than what was where; she remembers a mood.

“Key West was not discovered,” she said, “but for a single girl in her early 20s, it was heaven. It was a Navy town all the way. I had all the dates I wanted, and you could be as picky as you wanted to be.”

McCoy calls the Key West of 50 years ago “a one-factory town,” referring to the one strong driving factor in the city’s economy — the Navy. Tourism, she said, was just beginning.

“There weren’t many hotels in town 50 years ago,” she said.

Even the Casa Marina — the stately historic hotel built by Henry Flagler — had just reopened after a long stint of closure. According to McCoy, it closed during the Depression and then in World War II, it served as a barracks, then closed again. By the time she graduated high school in 1948, it was once again open as a hotel, and her parents were operating a small motel on Hilton Haven.

Following the war, Key West experienced a housing boom, she said, and New Town had its start.

“There were many people who had never crossed White Street in their lives — those were serious Conchs. They had everything they needed right there in Old Town. Still, Joe Seguro began building a bunch of houses between First and Fifth streets. They were tract houses.”

Some of those houses that sold for less than $10,000 now have price tags pushing half a million.

“All that new housing didn’t house newcomers,” said McCoy. “It was mainly Conchs — families moving further out, returning vets.”

Despite her long history, McCoy is a freshwater (sort of) Conch. She was not born in the island city, but came here when she was just a kid.

“When I first came to Key West, in 1939, there was no airport. I remember [local dentist] Dr. Hayes telling me that once he had to get to Miami, and my daddy arranged for him to fly out on a coast Guard seaplane.”

Before moving to Hilton Haven — McCoy’s uncle was Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels — she remembers living next to the Key West Lighthouse.

“The Hemingway boys lived across the street. We had a lighthouse and they had a pool. My dad would hide the key to the lighthouse somewhere new every week and we would find it in half an hour. Boy, if my father knew what we did in that lighthouse!

“We used to play chicken. They didn’t have that guardrail on the top, and we would get on the outside and walk all the way around.”

She was 11 at the time. McCoy also remembers taking big bags of Spanish limes up to eat while she read comic books.

“I would bomb the neighbor’s chickens with the seeds. It would make them run around like crazy and the neighbors would come outside to see what the ruckus was.”

More than 50 years of changes could leave anyone cynical, but McCoy has embraced change. And, she says, despite a new face, some of the best parts of Key West are still intact.

“Its sense of community, I think, is still there. It’s just a different makeup now. In those days, it was more filial. There was the bubba thing, and I don’t mean cronyism. People are always confusing the two.

“By bubbaism, I mean that this is an island and you have to depend upon each other. That little thin umbilical cord that ties us to the mainland — the bridges — were just a little over 10 years old then. But you still had enough of the new coming down because this was is a tropical island and the end of the line and that has always been attractive. Well you still have all of that now. And you have other entities as well, but we still have that isolation.”

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