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Key West may clean up its act

Tourist Janet Sternberg of McMinnville, Tenn., has her picture taken with Captain Booty, played by retired teacher Bob Kelley, in front of Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street in Key West.

Associated Press

Tourist Janet Sternberg of McMinnville, Tenn., has her picture taken with Captain Booty, played by retired teacher Bob Kelley, in front of Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street in Key West.

KEY WEST — Dorie Hoch­stedler was part star tourist, part terrified grandmother when she offered perches on her body for an iguana, four exotic birds and an albino Burmese python called Lemon Drop.

"I'm doing it so my grandchildren will get a kick out of it," the Indiana native said as a gawking crowd instantly assembled.

The unique memory is why Hochstedler and millions of other tourists come to Key West. And the prime lure is famed Duval Street, known for its bars, high-end art galleries, drag queens and offbeat characters.

Many Key Westers think Duval, stretching 1.2 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is the city's crown jewel.

But many others believe the street, with its T-shirt shops that sell bongs and cracked sidewalks littered with cigarette butts, is a source of embarrassment.

They want Duval to clean up its act.

New City Commissioner Barry Gibson, who owns a sunglasses shop on Duval, has begun a crusade to have store owners move profanity and pornography out of sight from the street.

That small mission has jump-started a campaign by Mayor Morgan McPherson to look at every aspect of improving Duval.

At the beginning of the year, the city hosted a Duval Street Summit at the new, swanky Beachside Resort & Conference Center to discuss a gamut of issues: improved street cleaning; better law enforcement of vagrants, and the possible additions of trolleys, recycling cans, city information ambassadors, trees, flowers, benches and public restrooms.

It resulted in the creation of a Duval Street committee, which meets Wednesdays at Old City Hall to tackle issues and recommendations made at the summit.

A major issue is public restrooms. The street of 312 businesses does not have a public facility. Salesman Ofer Bensvi of David Brian Jewelers says that is a shame, especially for the thousands of cruise ship visitors who descend on the city daily.

"They come to us begging for restrooms," he said.

McPherson said there are a couple of possible solutions to the where-to-go problem. When the city demolishes the old city hall, it could build a public parking lot with public restrooms easily accessible from Duval.

The second possibility is for a private enterprise to buy one of the many vacant buildings on Duval and turn it into facilities similar to those in New York and Chicago, where patrons pay $2 for the use of a clean restroom.

Most at the summit agreed with Gibson that vulgarity and pornography should be moved out of the storefront windows.

Bonnie Kiperman, owner of three T-shirt shops on Duval Street, said some of those shirts with their raunchy sayings are her best sellers.

"Still, I agreed to do it," she said. "If we had 100 percent compliance, it would make things easier."

But Kiperman said she doesn't understand why the T-shirt shops are being singled out, when Duval street features nudity at Fantasy Fest and has two strip clubs and the Scrub Club, which despite its name, is not a place to do laundry.

City Commissioner Mark Rossi, who owns one of those strip clubs, said people come to Key West for one main reason: "It's free-spirited and that's what Key West is about and people tend to forget that."

Two months later, Gibson said many shops have moved offensive items out of the storefronts. "But there are a few left that I'm still working on," he said.

First-time Key West tourists Jan and Lowell Vanderveer, a couple in their 60s from Indiana, didn't see what the fuss was about.

"I think it's kind of nice the way it is," Lowell said.

Duval is like no other street in America. A person can watch professional productions at the Red Barn Theatre and cross the street for a lap dance. A person can peruse the historic San Carlos Institute, a Cuban museum, and later watch Inga the Swedish Bombshell sing. There are restaurants that sell $400 bottles of wine and bars that feature topless women riding an electric bull.

"If it were made to look like any other touristy street in the USA, it wouldn't be Duval," Hochstedler said after the last cockatoo was removed from her shoulder. "What makes it unique is it's funky. And coming from the Midwest, it's really funky."

Key West may clean up its act 03/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2008 8:36pm]
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