Walking down Petronia street, I saw a number of places I want to go to – Blue Heaven, La Creperie and Santiago’s Bodega, but Michael isn’t with me so I’m just window shopping and reading menu’s. These places are tucked away in the part of Key West called Bahama Village. This was once a primarily black neighborhood, and is named for its many original residents who were of Bahamian ancestry.
Between Blue Heaven and Santiago’s Bodega there is a fascinating corner house with interesting artwork and all kinds of contraptions in the yard. A beat up old truck, colorfully painted and filled with coconuts is parked next to the side yard. I see an older, black gentleman in the yard and I ask him if I can speak with him. He invites me in and we start what turns out to be a half hour conversation.
I was originally interested because of the art and the “inventions” and I thought Michael might like to come back and photograph them but what really interested me was Mr. Chapman himself. He’s a Character with a capital “C”. He is seventy-five years old, was born in the house across the street, lived there until he was 3 and then moved into another house, next door to his current house. He is a philosopher and a tinkerer, has an amazing toolshed and a large number of “works in progress” scattered around.
Of all the cool things in his yard, the best is a tricycle that is all tricked out with lights, music and Key West memorabilia. Michael and I had seen a man riding a trike up and then back down Duval street a few nights earlier when we were eating dinner. As he went by the first time – lights flashing and music blaring – I said to Michael, Do you think he’s selling something? When he came back, I thought no, he’s doing this for fun and to spread joy. I was thrilled to see the trike and he confirmed that yes, that was him and he does rides it for fun and joy – every night, weather permitting, as soon as it starts to get dark. It looks very different in the daylight, when the lights are off, but is none the less fascinating to pour over. We’ll catch him riding some night and take a photo.
Mr. Chapman has seen a tremendous evolution of history in this area during his lifetime. From what He told me, originally blacks were not allowed to live in Key West and when they were finally permitted to, they were confined to the “back” of Key West in the area that became Bahama Village. Mr. Chapman went to all black schools, has lived through segregation, and is now seeing the “gentrification” of this area due to its proximity to Whitehead and Duval Streets. This is forcing the original tenants out of the area due to rising prices. Historically, no white people ever crossed into Bahama Village except one, Ernest Hemingway. He became friends with many of the residents and his death was felt deeply by many residents. By 2008, the area was only 50% black and I understand the percentage of blacks has continued to decline as more businesses snap up prime locations and more affluent people buy up the houses.
I brought Michael back a few days later to meet Mr. Chapman and to take pictures. He wasn’t as talkative on our second visit but was still just as friendly. We’ll definitely go back another time and give him prints of Michael’s photos. As we were walking down Chapman Lane to our car, we had a neat surprise. A young woman wanted to pet Mick and as I looked closely at her, I thought I recognized her. I looked at the other people she was with and realized that she and another women were the key belly dancers from A Mid Summer Night’s Dream. Of course they remembered Michael as one of the photographers and we had a great conversation and met even more good people. Michael is going to photograph one of their Belly Dancing classes and may be able to set up a couple of artist shoots for July. Stay tuned for posts about the photo shoots.