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Images Of New Deal Era Key West Return To The Island For Exhibit

Arthur Rothstein was a young man in the 1930s. He originally wanted to be a doctor. But it was the Depression and he went to work for the Farm Security Administration, documenting American workers and the conditions they faced.

Credit Arthur Rothstein / Arthur Rothstein Archive
Arthur Rothstein Archive
Arthur Rothstein's assignment in Key West was to document how people there lived, like this fisherman repairing his net.

In 1938, that assignment took him to Key West. The city suffered more than most in the Depression, declaring bankruptcy and essentially handing itself over to the state. The state, in turn, brought in a New Deal administrator who decided the island should remake itself as a tourist mecca.

Rothstein's images document some of those efforts, as well as the life that survived in Key West. Look through the slideshow at the top of this post to see those photographs.

"His job was to introduce America to Americans," said Ann Rothstein Segin, the photographer's daughter. "The curio shop. The barbershop. Fishermen working. The bait shop. He wanted to show how everybody lived their lives."

Rothstein is best known for a photograph he took on one of this first assignments, of a farmer and his two sons taking shelter from a dust storm in the Midwest.

He worked alongside other iconic New Deal photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

"He was a remarkable photographer," says Cori Convertito, curator at the Key West Art & Historical Society. "Assignment: Key West," an exhibit of Rothstein's photosis on display at the Society's museum.

"A lot of his photos contain people. A lot of them are just doing things that people would do naturally — drinking coffee, reading a newspaper, getting a shave at the barbershop," Convertito says. "He really went for the heart of things that Americans can relate to, whether they were familiar with Key West or not."

Convertito says she hopes people who see the exhibit will "see Key West in a different way," whether that's recognizing a building they know but with a past they didn't know about, or seeing how differently people once lived on the island.

"Everybody's wearing long-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved pants, ties, hats," Convertito says. "Obviously Key West isn't like that any more."

Rothstein was only in Key West for a few weeks but, judging by a letter he sent home, he developed a strong regard for the place. He wrote about his concern about how Key West might change after the opening of the Overseas Highway, which replaced the railroad after the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

"I hope the resulting boom in development doesn't spoil the picturesque beauty of the island," Rothstein wrote, "nor make the natives lose their friendliness."

"Assignment: Key West" is on display at the Custom House, 281 Front St., Key West, until Nov. 10.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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