Locals Battle About Remaking Key West's Image Duval Street in Key West is famous for its open-air bars, strip clubs and raunchy T-shirt shops. As the city has gone more upscale in recent years, some residents and business owners are embarrassed by the seedy, beer-soaked main drag. But can you clean up the street without sacrificing its end-of-the-road, anything-goes appeal?
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Locals Battle About Remaking Key West's Image

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Locals Battle About Remaking Key West's Image

Locals Battle About Remaking Key West's Image

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

There's a different kind of cleanup going on in Key West, Florida. You can still find drag queens on Duval Street, and the beer still flows like water at bars like Sloppy Joe's, but with an influx of high-town boutiques and family tourists, some locals are arguing about whether to revamp Key West's scruffy image.

NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN: For visitors to Key West, there's one place to be each evening as the sun goes down. It's at the foot of Duval Street: Mallory Square.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Unidentified Man: It's show time.

(Soundbite of applause)

ALLEN: There are acrobats, jugglers, musicians, fire breathers, a festival of street theater that each night is the unofficial kickoff of the party that happens on Duval Street.

Surrounded by about 100 people, Dave Graham(ph) and Tobin Renwick's(ph) routine involves a 30-foot ladder, acrobatics and a cigarette lighter.

Unidentified Male: Come quick, I'm gonna light him on fire. I can only do it once.

ALLEN: There's no place in America quite like Key West. A Caribbean port, longtime home to the Navy and Coast Guard, it's enjoyed a reputation as a colorful place that likes a good time, and which has a seedy side.

Unidentified Woman: Beautiful exotic dancers upstairs. Couples are welcome upstairs.

ALLEN: On Duval Street, it's all on display: strip clubs, open air rock and roll bars interspersed with restaurants and T-shirt stores. Melinda Spicer (ph) was visiting Key West from Connecticut. She's been here twice before but never with the kids.

Ms. MELINDA SPICER (Tourist): And we have eight kids between us, and we, personally, I don't think we would bring our kids here, for say, to do Duval Street. If we had them we'd go to the beach, we'd go do other things. But, you know, I see this is more of something that's more adult oriented.

ALLEN: But there are plenty of families with kids in Key West these days. Many arrive on the cruise ships that stop here. Others are attracted by the Hard Rock Cafe, the pirate museum, or the tours on the miniature conch train. Key West clientele is changing. And Barry Gibson says to cater to the families and cruise ship passengers, Duval Street needs to change as well.

Gibson was elected to Key West City Council last fall, and cleaning up Duval Street was one of his campaign themes. One of his first acts was to talk to owners of T-Shirt stores.

Ms. BARRY GIBSON (Key West City Council): We have a lot of T-Shirt shops that really cater to the younger crowd, whether it's obscene and vulgar slogans on the shirts and sayings in the windows that catch somebody's eye and they thought it was quite funny. And some of it can be offensive to women and children.

ALLEN: Gibson asked owners of Key West T-Shirt shops to remove the most offensive shirts from their display windows. Bonnie Kiperman who owns three T-shirt stores on Duval Street says most were happy to comply.

Ms. BONNIE KIPERMAN (T-Shirt Store Owner): This is a party town and everybody's trying to have fun, and I guess we had a little too much fun. You know, so somebody had to draw us back in and that's what happened. So, it's fine. Everything's fine.

ALLEN: That takes care of one problem. But according to Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson there are other battles still ahead.

Mayor MORGAN MCPHERSON: Areas that'll be contentious somewhat: chickens.

ALLEN: That's right, chickens. There are various stories on how they came to be here, but the fact is that hens, chicks, and roosters that crow on the hour run wild in Key West. McPherson says tourists love them, locals, not so much.

Mayor MCPHERSON: I mean obviously they invoke some form of emotion both ways, those that have been disturbed by them and those that feel like they're a precious commodity.

ALLEN: McPherson says the city is working with animal welfare groups to find farms in central Florida willing to take some of Key West's hundreds of chickens. But there's another potential flash point - he wants to enforce the city's open container law and put an end to a Key West tradition: to stroll up Duval Street with beer in hand. Back at her T-Shirt store, Bonnie Kiperman supports the efforts to clean up the street. The tough part, she says, is finding the right balance.

Ms. KIPERMAN: Do we go with the high end stores? Do we totally change Duval Street or do we allow Duval Street to change itself and have what you have. You have tacky T-Shirts and you have Coach, and you have Nine West, and then you have bars on every corner, and you've got the homeless man standing outside painted gold or whatever color he wants to be that day, you know? And I think that's the appeal of Key West.

ALLEN: Disneyworld it's not.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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