As places go, most of Florida is relatively new. Henry Flagler’s railway lines are only barely older than our most elderly residents. Key Biscayne, as a suburban community, is considerably younger than many people who live within it. Despite this newness, throughout my years as a Florida and Key Biscayne resident there has been this phenomenon of newcomers versus old-timers.
The typical formulation is that the old-timers know everything and want what’s best while the newcomers don’t understand anything and want undesirable change. This schism between long-time residents and more-recent arrivals permeates many local issues: taxes, traffic, schools, police, infrastructure, zoning, and more.
There are a few largely objective differences between the two groups. Newcomers are statistically less likely to get involved in local affairs. And this makes sense as it takes time to find your way around a new place. Due to Florida property tax particulars, especially the Homestead Exemption, newcomers generally pay more taxes as a percentage of their home value. Some newcomers are transient, relocating due to a new job, for example. And, perhaps most of all, newcomers are new — they simply don’t know what existed before they arrived. They can’t miss the golf course that is now a condo; the wooded area that is now a group of homes; or the local hangout that is now a bank.
Old-timers, on the other hand, may be so involved in local affairs that they’ve lost perspective or their sense of possibility. They may have a hard time seeing the need for investment in a place in which they are so comfortable — much like my teenagers can successfully overlook the messy condition of their rooms. And they may be so frustrated with change over the years that they just want it to stop — even change that is needed and will benefit everyone.
Another important thing about newcomers and old-timers is that many of the former transform, in a way so imprecise as to be a sort of magic, into the latter. On Key Biscayne this imprecision has some unique varieties: the “I visited my grandparents here decades ago and I moved here last year” old-timers as well as the “we’ve had a condo here forever and just decided to live here full-time” newcomers. There’s also some irony around this on our island paradise: quite a few of the old-timers, while complaining about the newcomers and all the change that’s accompanied them, have enabled and profited handsomely from it.
Putting all that aside, Key Biscayne, and much of the rest of Florida, has reached an interesting evolutionary stage: much of the development that is occurring is replacing previous development. Bigger homes replacing smaller ones. New yacht clubs replacing older structures. And, hopefully, sturdier bridges replacing questionable ones. The days of development occurring primarily on undeveloped land have passed, at least in Key Biscayne.
This seems to present an opportunity to largely bridge the traditional rift between newcomers and old-timers, at least with respect to infrastructure and development. It’s hard to imagine tremendous nostalgia for an unstable bridge or a street that regularly floods or a beach that’s so narrow it’s impassable. Likewise, a commercial area that is more walkable and facilitates greater commerce, more places to eat and shop, seems like an objective improvement over ones that are dominated by parking spaces, banks, and realtors. A school with more space for students and more room for diverse activities would benefit everyone. A bigger, better library, as appears to be imminent, seems like a universally welcome change.
This week all of us — newcomers, old-timers, and those, like me, that feel like they’re somewhere in the middle, young people, older people, individuals and entire families — have an opportunity to come together to ideate on our vision for Key Biscyne. The Village of Key Biscayne Vision Board, assisted by DPZ, a truly world-class community planning firm, is hosting a series of public events. Starting today through Saturday, February 19th residents are invited to join in a discussion and cooperative design process, called charettes, to start sketching out how we envision Key Biscayne improving over the coming decades.
If we take advantage of this, as I am sure we will, it has the potential to unify us and allow us to confidently and efficiently make investments that will improve our island in innumerable ways and help assure its long-term survival as the place newcomers are eager to come to and old-timers are determined to never leave. Godspeed.