Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Lopez's walk full of friends

A walk through Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez's electoral district with the man himself can be a choppy affair.

That's because Lopez, whose turf takes in a good-sized chunk of Old Town on both sides of Duval Street, seems to know everybody he encounters on the street, what issues they're dealing with, and how their aging parents are doing. He stops to chat, shake hands and fraternize with people he has known, in some cases, for decades.

The city of Key West Sustainability Coordinator Alison Higgins has organized a series of walks led by city commissioners in their respective districts as a way to encourage fitness and car-free transport. On Thursday it was Lopez's turn to lead a group of citizens on a tour of the neighborhoods he represents, to answer questions, hear concerns and have a good time doing so.

Lopez, wearing navy workout clothes and carrying a bottle of orange Powerade, was all smiles as he introduced his constituents to Higgins, wellness coach Heidi Golightly, and representatives from the offices of congressman Joe Garcia and state Rep. Holly Raschein.

"I think these walks are a great idea," said Lopez, who has held his commission seat for eight years now. "Great to get out and meet the people. Great to get a little exercise. There's no downside."

During a stop at the Key West Firehouse Museum, Lopez embraced his old pal Alex Vega, the driving force behind the creation of the museum and the current president of the nonprofit foundation that runs it.

"This guy I grew up with," Lopez said with a broad smile. "But I think he's looking better than me these days."

The pair joked about old times, mutual friends and family members, but beneath Lopez's self-deprecating sense of humor and lighthearted manner, there are serious issues on his mind. The development of the Truman Waterfront, for one.

"That's pretty huge," said Lopez, whose district abuts the waterfront.

"What we do there is going to determine a lot of other things. It's going to have a major impact on the neighborhood and the city, and we want it to be a good one."

Another subject that brings a thoughtful look to Lopez's face is the proposed development of the Simonton Street trailer park, a low-income enclave slated for conversion.

"I've talked to the new owner, Joe Cleghorn, about the people currently living there," Lopez said. "And he's promised me to try to help them find units in some of his other developments."

Even when he's talking about difficult subjects, however, Lopez prefers levity.

"This is one of my favorite spots in my district," Lopez said, as he and the 30 or so walkers ambled up to the front gate of the Key West City Cemetery. "But I'm not looking for votes here."

Lopez isn't just whistling past the graveyard, either.

A fourth-generation Key Wester, the commissioner has plenty of relatives to visit in this city of the dead. Many friends, too.

And there's space in the family plot for more, though Lopez doesn't dwell on the inevitability of death and decay.

He's more interested in issues that affect the living. Even here, where he quizzed Sexton Russell Brittain on his efforts to deal with the homeless and vandals who sneak into the cemetery at night.

The sexton himself is no stranger to the gallows humor that must come with the territory of working daily in this part of town.

"Welcome to my gated community," Brittain exclaimed with a grin before proceeding to give the group a tour of the celebrated boneyard.

As he pointed out the new signs, newly paved blacktop and new tomb developments, Brittain appeared to be more of a real estate agent than a crypt-keeper, but he clearly loves his job.

Even when he has to pick beer cans out of the trees.

"Is it break time?" Lopez inquired mischievously upon seeing the can.

The tour broke up on Frances Street, and Lopez had started back to the Harvey Government Center when he passed by the home of a retired firefighter he knows.

"Would you look at those sour oranges?" Lopez said longingly. "What a tree!"

The tree's proud owner came over to chat, and before long commitments were made to stay in touch when harvest season arrives.

Lopez has a Barbados cherry tree in his Bahama Village yard with which to bargain. The fireman has just about every kind of locally popular fruit imaginable, as well as avocados.

"What an incredible garden he has," Lopez said afterward. "It's so cool to see there are still some of those trees around."

And with that, the walk is over, and Lopez is on his way home.

He has waterfront plans to help formulate, and low-income trailer park residents to worry about.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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