Tuesday, January 16, 2007
For many Americans, January is the month for getting back to work after end-of-year vacations and buckling down for a long winter. It’s a time to think about the city. Accordingly, I present “Downtown Week.”
I visited Key West, Florida, this weekend, which is not often thought of a “downtown” kind of city. But Key West was built up in the 19th century, when it boomed as a center for shipping, fishing, and salvage. Its lovely downtown is still largely in pre-automobile form, with densely packed wooden cottages (some listed for more than $1 million) and houses on a street grid. One of the most surprising (to me) features of its otherwise high-priced downtown ambiance is “Bahama Village,” a district traditionally inhabited largely by low-income black persons (many of whom are of Bahamian descent and long-time key residents), literally a block west of famous Duval Street. While Bahama Village still holds some public housing and worn shacks, many of the houses are being bought up, fixed up, and put on the market at astronomical prices. Can such a low-income community survive the housing and tourist boom?
I suspect that it cannot survive, and that the forces pushing against Bahama Village are symptomatic of the economic pressures that face any lower-income neighborhood near an economically growing downtown. In big cities, poorer persons are being pushed further out; in some places, the problems of what were once called the “inner city” are now the problems of the “outer city,” as they are in places such as London and Paris. But in Key West, an island, there is almost literally nowhere else to move. (A mayor was quoted as saying that affordable housing was the city’s only drawback.) I suggest that cities with limited downtown housing options need to push aggressively for the construction of low-cost multi-family housing while it still can and where it still can, even if this housing doesn’t fit with the “character” of places such as Key West.