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How Key West Stays Quirky

Robin Jones

Robert Kerstein is a government professor at the University of Tampa. But when he's not teaching on the other coast, he likes hanging out in Key West. His frequent trips there have translated into a new book about how the little city at the bottom of the peninsula has managed to maintain its unique character while becoming a major tourist town. The book is called Key West: On The Edge, Inventing the Conch Republic. And this weekend, Kerstein will be appearing at the Miami Book Fair International

Kerstein credits the gay and lesbian population in the ‘60s and ‘70s with playing a major role in the development of Key West’s tourism industry. That, he says, distinguishes Key West from other tourist towns.

Here's an excerpt from the book.

“Many gay Key Westers became directly involved in the tourism business by renovating buildings and converting them into guesthouses that attracted primarily gay tourists. The prominent gay writer Edmund White concluded in States of Desire: Travels in Gay America that in 1979 Key West had ‘more and better gay accommodations for tourists than any other resort.’ About fifty such accommodations had opened by mid-1982, along with a few lesbian guest houses.”

However, the balance between maintaining Key West’s character while growing its tourism industry has not always been an easy one to strike.

Credit Arianna Prothero
Key West is famous for Jimmy Buffett, six-toed cats and a brief secession from the Union. But, maintaining the island's quirky character isn't always a cake walk.

Kerstein said the conversation—and sometimes conflict—over how much tourism is too much has been going on since 1912, when Henry Flagler built his famous railroad to Key West.

“A lot of people were saying that this is going to attract more commerce, more population, more tourism,” Kerstein explained. “Others felt that it was going to change the nature of the island dramatically because it wasn’t going to be as isolated.”

That debate has continued through the decades over high rises and  cruise ships.

Kerstein will be appearing at the Book Fair in Miami on Saturday, Nov. 17  at 11 a.m. 

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