A Stroll down Duval Street

Duval Street begins for me at South Beach. When I was six and for some years afterward, my father would come home from work, and take my brother and me for a dip in the ocean. We would swim through his legs and jump off his shoulders. He said we didn’t give him a moment’s peace. I remember the day he took me to a rock in the deep water out near the seaweed, and told me to swim back to him. I didn’t think I could, but I did. I never learned to properly swim until I took Swimming for a PE credit in college. Then at the end of the swim, he would drag us up on the beach, and our swimsuits would be full of sand. We would put our towels on the car seats to keep from burning our butts from the hot vinyl seats and ride the eight blocks to our house. No one walked back then if they could possibly avoid it. Dad would turn on the pump and hose us off with cold water. My Mom would put us in our night clothes and we would have supper and then they (my two great aunts, Aunt Nellie and Aunt Emma lived with us) would spend an hour or so on the porch in the big wicker rocking chairs talking and rocking my brother and me to sleep before going to bed. No TV back then. My parents always went to bed at 9:30. And got up at 5:30. They went to the Laundromat on Mondays, and did the grocery shopping on Thursdays. Such regimented lives they lived.

As we start down Duval, the next place of interest is La Te Da, restaurant, cabaret theater, bar and hotel at 1125 Duval. Teodoro Perez, a prominent cigar manufacturer, built the house in1892. The property included a large factory facing Simonton St. and cottages for his workers on nearby Catherine. Perez was known for his political support for Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) in the late nineteenth century and the Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti gave a speech from his large second floor balcony (La Terraza de Marti). A way down on the same block is Flamingo Crossing which sells homemade tropical ice cream. My favorite is coconut, while my father liked Sour Sop (Guanabana).

Next we go past Truman Avenue and head toward Downtown. When I was a child, we always got dressed up and went downtown on Saturday night. Miss Leila and Miss Grace lived in a large two-story house on the corner of Southard and Duval. It is no longer there. It had a large front porch with rocking chairs and some stairs where we kids used to sit. My father would take us to Kress Five and Dime and each week we got to pick out a little toy. We would all sit on the porch talking and watching the parade of people passing by. Next door was the Strand Movie Theater and next to that was a Locker Club, where sailors kept civilian clothes, which they could not keep on ships.

Across the street were the San Carlos Theater and a few doors down from that the Kress store, which later became Fast Buck Freddie’s, which sold high-end clothing, furniture, furnishings and novelties. Visiting the store was an adventure. Internet shopping eventually did them in and the store closed a few years ago, much to the consternation and disappointment of many. A CVS opened up there a year ago, the fourth one on this small island. Not all change is positive.

Across Fleming Street on the same side is the La Concha Hotel. A luxury hotel built in 1926. At six stories, it was then the tallest building in Key West and still is. We used to be able to take the elevator to the roof and have a 360-degree view of the island. But like all good things, that has disappeared. Not the view, but just us being able to get up to see it. The public room at the top is now a private spa. Here is a picture we took of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church from the rooftop of the La Concha number of years ago. The house next door is the Rectory. DSCN0081St. Paul’s is across the street and down the way on the corner of Eaton and Duval Streets.

This is the fourth St. Paul’s on this site, the others destroyed by hurricanes or fire. It is a beautiful church with nineteen magnificent stained glass windows depicting stories of the Bible. Washington National Cathedral and St. John the Devine in New York have windows crafted by Phipps, Ball and Burnham and Charles Connick Associates, the same firms responsible for most of St. Paul’s finest windows. When you enter the church, the beauty of these windows strikes you, particularly the dazzling blue one above the Baptismal font in the back of the church where I was baptized and my son 25 years later. My mother said I screamed the whole time at my baptism. The priest said it was the devil coming out. St. Paul is the patron saint of shipwrecked souls and the church is open to visitors most days.

Next week I’ll continue my stroll from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. When I was growing up, we were not allowed to go past Eaton St. Mostly bars down that way and the shrimp boat fleet. It was a rough side of town. So different now.

6 thoughts on “A Stroll down Duval Street”

  1. I heard they were blocking off the Hotel rooftop. Really browns me off. Key West is killing the geese that laid the golden eggs with all its ‘upscaling’ and clean-up. Yall need to learn from Atlanta’s fatal mistake in attempting to gentrify campy, artsy and charmingly trollopy Underground Atlanta. They turned it into a sterile shopping mall that is now deserted and for sale. So sad.

  2. On a brighter note: you write good, GF! And you make all us feel like we grew up there with ya. Keep on bloggin’! Ya got the knack!!!

  3. What a great picture you draw. I got the thinking how the way we think and what’s important is formed by where we grew up. I remember shortly after moving from Wyoming to New Mexico I gave a paper at a meeting in Miami Beach so took a little extra time for us to drive to Key West. Joan had arranged for me to dive at Pennekamp. I was waiting for Joan and the boys to pick me up and was washing the sand from the rented wet suit. One of the employees passed by and berated me for using the water which is, I’m sure, a very precious commodity on the island. Water was never that precious to those of us who were raised at the source of water but always returning borrowed things in better shape than when we borrowed them was. It made me stop and think about the ways different parts of the country view things.

    I just wish we’d had your blogs before we took that trip. How wonderful it would have been to have these mental pictures before actually experiencing the places.

  4. You have cast a spell on me with your story weaving, “seeing” Key West through your girl’s eyes. That’s me padding around behind you in my shorts and Keds, jumping off the same rock and sitting on the porch on Saturday night. Keep on, my friend! I am not nearly ready to leave the porch and go home!

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