Florida Keys News
Monday, May 14, 2012
Bahama Village banana man loses his trees

To Key West Housing Authority officials it was seen as a necessary task, the chopping down of banana trees Richard "Diver" Overman nurtured daily with his fingerless hands, outside the windows of his public housing apartment on Amelia Street.

To Overman it was a massacre.

"They were just nubs when I planted them," the 67-year-old retired lobster diver said. "Now I am so disappointed. That was my pastime -- the only pastime I've got. Now they took them away and I feel like nothin'."

Housing Authority Director Manuel Castillo said he and his staff tried to work with Overman, but that a line eventually had to be drawn.

"We told him the trees can't stay," Castillo said. "We said if you want to put them in pots, or take them somewhere else. But the long and the short of it is he didn't cooperate, the complaints became more and more, and so I sent a staff member there to cut down the trees."

Overman's three-room apartment is one of 28 in the Jack Murray housing complex in Bahama Village, subsidized housing for seniors, whose porches and walkways contain ample evidence of residents' creativity, especially when it comes to plants and flowers.

From Overman's point of view, planting the banana trees in the Housing Authority's dirt once they outgrew their pots was a no-brainer.

They gave him privacy in front of his windows and had an added benefit. When the fruit was big enough to pick he would bring the small bananas to the senior center, sharing them with other people there.

"They were excellent, so fresh," said Edy Moritz, who had interrupted her bridge game Thursday at the senior center to speak briefly with Overman, who told her there would be no more bananas.

The trees had become a pet project for Overman. He was born in Iowa, where his mother abandoned him because he was born with just stumps for fingers, though he has a whole thumb on each hand. Home for his entire childhood and teen years was a Davenport orphanage, where he was deemed unadoptable. They let him stay an extra year, he said, until he was 19 years old.

Then he entered the world looking for work, traveling around the country some, finally finding the Keys and falling in love with them because of the weather and the beauty.

"I always did have a green thumb," said Overman, who settled in Marathon, where he would dive for lobsters, timing his swims with the tides in such a way as to allow their aid for both getting away from shore and returning.

In 2008 high rental prices caught up with Overman, who moved to Key West and the apartment on Amelia Street.

He has a penchant for collecting lots of things, and some of the neighbors accused him of being a hoarder. Castillo and his staff investigated, determining that no violations existed in the apartment. But the trees, which Overman had transplanted from pots to solid earth, were another matter.

Overman was told to cut them down but never did.

"We told him we understand it is a nice therapeutic thing," Castillo said. "But we also said, 'Mr. Overman, you can't create a nuisance for your neighbors.' We want to encourage people to do things that promote ownership. But there is a very fine line on how much latitude we can give. It is against the lease to plant anything in the common areas. Pots we allow."

When no further action was taken against the trees Overman regarded it as license to continue tending his trees as they grew.

New life emerged from the trees, new nubs that were placed lovingly in pots, as Overman's hands nurtured them. The trees in the dirt he tended as well, he said, keeping them clean and free of debris.

But there were other problems, according to the Housing Authority.

One neighbor complained that the trees darkened the area he had to walk through to get to his apartment.

A security camera, Castillo said, had its view obstructed. Although Overman kept his trees as clean as he could -- and there were no actual reports of vermin due to them -- the risk of rats was still high, according to Castillo.

Now, with the banana trees down, Overman realizes he has no legal recourse.

But Castillo maintains that there is one option. The Housing Authority has already supplied the banana man with pots big enough to hold his newer, smaller trees. There is not a problem, Castillo said, so long as they are kept on concrete areas, and once they outgrow the pots are moved to dirt somewhere other than on the Housing Authority property.

Overman has already advertised his small trees, for sale to the highest bidder, however.

"I don't want to get in any trouble," he said.


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