KEY WEST — Clayton Lopez, the Key West city commissioner who represents the historically African-American enclave of Bahama Village, wore a mourning coat with a tiny fabric rose pinned to its lapel as he sat for an interview the Saturday before Christmas.
Lopez, 59, recently has had to bury a lot of Bahama Village people who helped raise him in the neighborhood he’s never left. They included Avis Roberts, whose funeral he had attended that afternoon. Like his mother, Roberts had been a longtime anchor in the neighborhood.
“I knew her my whole life,” he said. “Ms. Roberts and my mom were people you could lean on. They had a real understanding of raising children and living lives involved helping others.”
That theme pervades Bahama Village. Unlike the tourist district, it’s a corner of the city where families inhabit the same homes they’ve lived in for generations; where cousins and aunts and uncles live just around the corner, and young couples are still starting families.
The Bahamian, African, and Cuban roots in the community combine for a tight society of friendly, though struggling, individuals and families.
It is Lopez’s job to make sure the city government pays attention to Bahama Village, which doesn’t have the revenue-generating tourist bars, T-shirt shops, high-end hotels, expensive restaurants or three-story gingerbread mansions found in other parts of the city. Bahama Village makes up about a third of District 6, which he represents.
“The toughest part of my job is convincing everyone I represent that I have not lost who I am in the process,” Lopez said. “The city commission often focuses on issues affecting businesses like guest houses, hotels, electric car rentals, and other tourism, or historic-housing, issues. I participate in those debates and decisions, too, however, because they are important to other parts of my district.”
A big part of his job is to obtain city funding and other support for programs in Bahama Village. “The lowest, mean-income area of the city needs job-training programs and other help for young adults who want to work, and for older adults who need to work,” Lopez said. “The neighborhood is the last real glimpse into Key West as it once was.”
Bahama Village, which includes the land west of Duval Street to the undeveloped waterfront at the base of Front Street, could lose its quiet character as the city executes the $44 million development of that waterfront.
Lopez, who won his first commission seat in 2005 by opposing the first traffic plan for the proposed waterfront, said the project could still ruin the quiet of the neighborhood, where chickens run loose and kids ride their bikes to the store and the community swimming pool.
“Some disruption is necessary for growth, but we’ll continue to watch this process very closely,” he said. Lopez has caught a little grief from his constituents in the village. Aqua Nightclub, a Duval Street cabaret that features drag shows and late-night dance parties, had sought the city’s permission to move its operation to a building at the top of Petronia Street, next to public housing. Families with young children and older residents who worried about late-night noise opposed the move.
Lopez, however, argued for opening the club at the site. “I felt it would provide jobs,” he said. In the end, the club abandoned its plans after failing to overcome opposition by Bahama Village residents.
Lopez attended a segregated elementary school in a segregated Key West in the 1960s, and when tension between newly arrived black students at a segregated Key West High School broke into violence in 1972, Lopez emerged as a black student leader, according to news articles of the time.
“There was an open battle in Key West for two weeks,” Lopez said. “Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at a storefront; someone fired a gun at a skating rink, and a grocery store burned on Petronia Street.”
Lopez was one of six black students and six white students picked by then-Gov. Reubin Askew to negotiate school policy changes that equalized the social and administrative playing field for the students. The negotiations ended the troubles and students went back to class together.
“I learned a lot then,” Lopez said. “The biggest lesson is that the more troubling the situation, the more you have to keep your head."