TWENTY YEARS LATER: Was Harry Powell Right?

Peary Court park, circa 1990
Peary Court park, circa 1990

by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….

NOTE: For years, the large piece of undeveloped Navy property at White Street and Palm Avenue was used as a park by Key Westers. So when the Navy announced that the property, known as Peary Court, was to be developed for military housing, many locals protested. They argued that the Navy really didn’t need any more housing in Key West and, in fact, was in the process of reducing its presence in here. But it was a hard argument to win. The Navy owned the property and that was that. And construction began in 1993. But former City Commissioner Harry Powell apparently felt stronger about the issue than other protesters. On January 13, 1994, Powell showed up at the construction site and barricaded himself inside of a construction trailer with explosives strapped around his chest. He said he would give himself up if he received assurances that the decision to develop Peary Court would be reviewed by top brass in Washington. Finally, after an all-day standoff, somebody promised Harry that the already-underway development would be reviewed. He was arrested, tried and spent nearly a year in prison.

From the beginning, however, there was the question, “Was Harry Powell right?” Below is a re-publication of a page one commentary published in Key West The Newspaper on February 25, 1994. The author is former City Commissioner George Halloran. More recently, the question may have been answered more definitively when the Navy signed an agreement with a private company to lease units at Peary Court to civilians.


by George Halloran

It is 3:30 in the morning and this thing has taken me from a sound sleep to a computer rage. “Wait until morning,” said the body. “No! Get your lazy ass out of bed now” said the brain, “while it is still legal in Key West to say the words PEARY COURT.” The dream had been of Harry Powell, and now I realize there should be one hundred Harry Powells. One thousand! The streets of Key West should be full of us, marching, chanting, shouting about the biggest display of waste and deceit in a decade. Every journalist in the city should be making this a career. We are literally inside of a huge government coverup, every bit as slimy as Warergate, just as outrageous as a $ 200 hammer or a $ 5000 toilet. As scary as Uncle Sam feeding LSD and nuclear waste to unwitting human guinea pigs.

Whether you have lived on Southard Street for five generations or just blew into town from Omaha, you should be shocked at what has happened in this little town in the name of “national security” and you and I and every single one of us should be thirsting for justice until it is ours. You may think I’m exaggerating. Putting too much importance on a government housing project. But it is more than just houses. It is a government as close to defiance of its owners as I’d like to see it get.

Just how does a government ever do anything that isn’t in the very best interests of its citizens? Things don’t go wrong all at once and all by themselves. They start in little ways. Little mistakes turn into little lies, and the little lies grow into brazen falsehoods and then some pig-head is pounding on the lectern with blood in his eye accusing those who oppose the new program of heresy. “The king is NOT naked! It’s just your dirty mind!”

We live in a city famed for solid, historic, hand-built, hundred-year-old houses made of heart pine and midnight cypress, pegged at the corners, mortised at the joints, hand planed and hand hewn by the strong hands of proud old craftsmen. Now we watch meekly as elevated grade slabs are framed over with minimum sized, low grade lumber and cheesy sheeting, then wrapped in plastic and covered with vinyl. Is this for real? Would it take dead bodies to make this seem important anymore? We’ve had a virgin chained to a tree and a human bomb threat– do we need patriots impaled on the metal picket fence? What would make this serious enough for those in power to call a halt to construction today? This is a perfect place for President Clinton to give us an example of the CHANGE he promised us in government. Even now, today, millions could be saved by canceling the project.

We were told the Navy needed housing. That turned out to be a lie. We were told that the drainage system would filter the runoff perfectly. Another lie. We were told that there was no environmental adversity, no impact on city recreation, no historical significance. All lies. And now we are told that it would be more expensive to stop now than to finish. An even bigger lie.

As I recall, the contract clearly states the project can be halted at any time by the Navy if it is “in the public interest.” So much for penalties. And even if some soft-hearted judge gave the contractor every penny of his expected profit on the whole job tomorrow, there would be huge savings to the taxpayers. More than enough, in my opinion, to bulldoze the whole place level again, build the nicest park in South Florida, and with the last few million, fund a perpetual maintenance annuity.

Yeah, yeah, I know the land belongs to the Navy. But isn’t the Navy your son and your cousin and your aunt Helen? Isn’t the Navy our own creation, our own tool to use as our nation sees fit to use it? Who in our nation has decreed that we need this housing? No one. No serious group of civilians has said we need more military housing in Key West. Even the Navy admits that it is unnecessary, after first hiding official studies that contradicted need.

So, how has this project kept rolling along despite 600 letters and 6000 signatures screaming No! No!! NO!!!? It is that insidious tide, born of plodding servitude and nurtured with polite indifference, that slowly builds into the biggest lie of all– “it’s too late, there’s nothing I can do about it.” That’s how government goes wrong on the little things that grow into the big things and finally runs amok. That’s how Adolf got his start.

What do we know? We know that the project is a waste of money. We know that the Navy is dumping hundreds of other housing units while they build these. We know that there is a shortage of parks in Key West. We know that the construction is poor and the press board could end up on our porches in a hurricane. Yet we eat lunch, talk about fishing and shrug our shoulders, and the project goes on.

Working together, maybe we could have made a difference. But we didn’t. And in our apathy, we allowed Harry Powell to crucify himself. He asked our representatives in Washington for help, but they did nothing. He asked all of us for help, and we did a little. But Peary Court crawled off the drawing boards anyway. And maybe we could have stopped it. But we didn’t.

There should be a thousand Harry Powells!

~George Halloran


Dennis Reeves Cooper, Phd
Dennis Reeves Cooper, Phd

NOTE: Dennis Reeves Cooper founded Key West The Newspaper (The Blue Paper) in 1994 and was editor and publisher for 18 years, before he retired last year.

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