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Key West at a Glance

Regional Setting * History * Population * Housing * Economy *

Regional Setting

Key West lies near the end of the chain of islands known as the Florida Keys, and is the southern-most city in the continental United States. The island-community is located about 90 miles north of Cuba and 150 miles southwest of Miami at a latitude of 24 degrees, ~3 minutes, ~ seconds North and at a longitude of 81 degrees, 48 minutes, 14 seconds West. The island has an area of 4.2 square miles, while the City-incorporating the northern part of neighboring Stock Island-has an area of 5.79 square miles. The City initially developed because of its proximity to the Florida Straits, the abutting Florida Reef strong offshore ocean currents (the Gulf Stream), and the area 5 unpredictable winds, combined with a large natural deep-water harbor and deep channels into the harbor. The Florida Straits are the northern-most sea passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. For three centuries this passage formed part of the great nautical trade route that carried ships from Caribbean and South American ports to their European homelands. The location of Key West serves as a gateway both to the Caribbean and between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico was recognized by the military at an early date. Another important regional factor in the development of the City has been its proximity to Cuba, 90 miles to the south.


Key West's long and colorful past begins with its European discovery in 1513 by Ponce de Leon. The island was first known as Cayo Hue so (Isle of Bones) because it was littered with remains from an Indian battlefield or burial ground. The name "Key West" is the English version of the Spanish term. The first permanent occupancy in the City occurred in 1822, complete with a small naval depot, whose purpose was to rid the area of pirates. The presence of the U.S. Navy has been a major factor in the growth and development of Key West ever since. The settlement was incorporated in 1828, four years after becoming the county seat of Monroe County. The City grew and prospered, based first on fishing and salvaging ships wrecked on the nearby reefs, and later on cigar manufacturing with Cuban refugees and imported Cuban tobacco. Other economic activities included sponging and related commercial functions. By 1890, Key West was the largest and richest city in Florida. However, after the turn of the century its major industries were in decline. Little construction was undertaken between the First and Second World Wars and the City saw a steady decline in population between 1919 and 1935.

World War II brought prosperity back to Key West. Population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960. Nation-wide military base closings and personnel reductions beginning in the 1960s were major contributors to the City's second major cycle of population decline. After recording the highest number of residents in its history in 1960, Key West experienced over a 25 percent loss in population by 1980. The 1990 Census showed a slight increase.

The City has not experienced a major fire since 1886 or a hurricane since 1919. As a result there are large numbers of buildings in the community that are near or over a century old. The historical structures of Key West are not grand public facilities, as churches and government buildings, but are homes and cottages-still in private ownership-built by persons without formal architectural training. These historical buildings are found in a 190 block ( 919 acre) area in the western end of the City. Within the historical area are 3,100 structures containing the greatest cluster of wooden buildings in Florida and one of the largest concentrations in the U.S. Generally, the structures date from 1886 to 1912, but they represent the building tradition of Key West from 1838.

The city's historical area, known as "Old Town", has a very distinctive appearance, combining features of both New England and Bahamian building styles. The basic features which distinguish the local architecture includes wood frame construction of one to two-and-a-half story structures set on foundation piers about three feet above the ground. Exterior characteristics of the buildings are peaked "tin" roofs, horizontal wood siding, pastel shades of paint, side-hinged louvered shutters, covered porches (or balconies, galleries, or verandas) along the fronts of the structures, and wood lattice screens covering the area elevated by the piers. A small but striking characteristic is the wooden balustrade and other ornamental trim present around the porches. The neighborhoods in which these buildings are located have their own distinctive features. These include a grid street pattern, buildings set close to each other and to the street, a diverse mix of building sizes and heights, fences of wood picket or wrought iron or low masonry walls, and dozens of alleys or lanes, with their own cluster of dwellings, entering the local street system at irregular intervals.


Key West had a 1990 population of 24,832 year-around inhabitants. This was a slight increase (450 persons) since 1980. In addition to the permanent residents, the City was also home to an estimated 12,887 more seasonal visitors, including 1,628 living in the community three to five months per year, and 11,259 staying less than three months. This meant that on an average day the number of persons in Key West swelled to 37,539. By 1997, the most current year such figures are available, the City had an estimated permanent population of 27,305 in addition to 18,630 tourist/visitors, for a total daily population of almost 46,000.

Characteristics of the population are available only on the permanent residents as of 1990. The median age of the local citizens was 33.7 years, in contrast to the Florida average of 36.5 years. About 7 percent of the City's population was of pre-school age (0 to 5), 13 percent of school age (5 to 18), 68 percent of working age (18 to 65), and 12 percent of retirement age (65 and above). The age groupings of the local residents have changed very little between 1980 and 1990. Of the full-time residents, 72 percent were white (non-Hispanic), 10 percent were black (non-Hispanic), less than one percent were of all other races (non-Hispanic), and 16 percent were of Hispanic origin (of any race). Key West also has a large and diverse gay and lesbian population. One characteristic of the local population is great mobility. Almost two-thirds of the 1990 inhabitants didn't live in the same dwelling five years previously, and only an estimated 20 percent of residents lived in the same dwelling over 15 years.


There were 12,221 housing units in Key West in 1990. This is an increase of 1,355 units since 1980. Of the total dwellings, 39 percent were single family detached residences, 54 percent were multi-family units, 4 percent were mobile homes, and 3 percent were boats, tents, etc. Not included in the 1990 Census figures are the 4,345 hotel, motel, guest boarding house rooms, and campground sites and cottages in the City.

About 85 percent of all dwellings were occupied year-around, 8 percent were vacant for sale or rent, and 7 percent (808) were seasonally or otherwise used. Of the 10,424 permanently occupied units, 42 percent were owner-occupied and 58 percent were renter-occupied. Between 1980 and 1990, the percent of owner-occupied homes declined significantly, from 50 percent to 42 percent, while the percentage of renter-occupied units increased from 50 to 58 percent over the same period.

There are two distinguishing characteristics of housing in the City. One is age. Only 17 percent of all housing units in Key West were built after 1970, in contrast to 57 percent of the dwellings in Monroe County. Of all housing stock in the city, 28 percent (3,428) were built before 1939, compared to 8 percent in Monroe County.

The second major characteristic of City housing is cost. The median value of owner-occupied housing in 1990 was $147,400 compared to the state average of $76,400. Median gross monthly rent was $559, in contrast to the state average of $402. In 1996 (when the average single family home sale price was $220,300) National Association of Realtors data showed that Key West was the fourth most expensive housing market in the United States.


Tourism is the City's primary generator of local economic activity. In 1996, the City received an estimated 1.3 million annual visitors, including 274,000 airport deplanements; 427,000 cruise ship passengers; and 637,000 automobile passengers. Approximately 66 percent of the economic base (employment) in the city is directly or indirectly tied to tourism.

About two of every three jobs in Key West in 1990 were in either the retail trade or service sectors. Almost half of all retail trade positions were in eating and drinking establishments, and the professional and related category accounted for half of all service positions. The economic base of the City, in comparison to state-wide averages, is very high in retail trade and public administration employment and equally low in the manufacturing and wholesale trade sectors.

The median household income in the community in 1990 was $28,121. This was slightly higher than the state average of $27,483.

About 10 percent of Key West residents had incomes below the poverty line.

Key West Planning Department, 1998


The City Government of Key West, Florida
Copyrightę 1999