Key West's participation in the statewide celebration of Florida's 500th "birthday" is evident now in the distinctive red, white and blue banners hanging from about 70 streetlights throughout Old Town.
The double-sided banners feature historic tidbits about Key West or the Florida Keys, along with the business logo of each banner's sponsor.
"It's a chance to see the streets of the historic district differently," said project organizer Bruce Neff. "It's low-tech. You don't need a smartphone app or an iPad to experience the history of Key West. If you can walk and read, you can be a part of it."
Neff, who also created the interactive, online Key West Historic Marker Tour, is heading up the local 500th anniversary project, "Historic Key West: 500 Years of Paradise," in partnership with the statewide Viva Florida 500 celebration, which marks the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's discovery of Florida in 1513.
The Historic Key West: 500 Years of Paradise project includes the streetlight banners, along with a website that will publicize, for free, any community events that organizers put together to coincide with the anniversary.
Neff has suggested events such as a fishing tournament to honor Ponce de Leon's landmark discovery of the Gulf Stream current that changed the worldwide shipping industry. Or a local boxing match could recognize the impacts of the Spanish conquistadors on Florida.
"The possibilities are endless for events that tie into the historical anniversary," Neff said, adding that the HistoricKeyWest.org website will post the information about any such events at no cost to the organizers.
The local event calendar will, in turn, be linked to hundreds of thousands of potential customers through the partner websites of Visit Florida, Viva Florida 500 and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, Neff said, adding that the Historic Key West group was one of the state's first partners in the Viva Florida 500 celebration.
Although Ponce de Leon never officially set foot in the Florida Keys -- and his quest for the Fountain of Youth is largely fictional -- he did discover a remote but important chain of islands to the west of Key West that he named Tortugas, for the 100 or so sea turtles he and his men reportedly captured there to sustain them on their daunting voyage around Florida.
This week marks the 500th anniversary of the explorer's discovery of mainland Florida. Ponce de Leon did not arrive in the Tortugas (the English later added the prefix "Dry" to warn mariners of the dearth of freshwater on the islands) until June 21, 1513. In May of that year, the Spanish conquistador sailed the length of the Florida Keys, which he named Los Martires, or The Martyrs, because the islands reminded him of suffering men, according to Neff's website, HistoricKeyWest.org.
Following the 1513 discovery by a Spaniard, Florida became a Spanish colony for the next 270 years.
"Florida was a Spanish colony for longer than it's been a part of the United States," Neff points out when emphasizing the significance of Ponce de Leon's journeys.
An estimated 70 streetlight banners have already been installed, and there is room for a total of 200, Neff said.
The "historical nuggets" include facts ranging from Key West once being the richest city in the nation, to the locals' definition of a "square grouper."
The banners will hang from each light on Duval Street, as well as Greene and Front streets, and two blocks of Whitehead Street. Additional banners were initially planned for the lights throughout Mallory Square.
"But I quickly discovered that the ones at Mallory Square were too tempting to steal, and became the perfect 'souvenirs' for people to take home with them," Neff said.
Instead, two banners now mark the entrance to Mallory Square near Wall Street, he said. Sponsorship opportunities are still available for five banners on Duval Street, "and quite a few spots" on the side streets, Neff said. Sponsorships range from $900 to $1,500, depending on whether a business wants one or both sides of the banner, with the Duval Street locations costing $100 more than those off Duval.
They will hang until December, when they're replaced by holiday decorations, and Neff has agreed to remove them if winds more than 80 mph threaten the city. The banners were produced and installed by Southernmost Signs, he said.
"And once they come down, then the sponsors get to keep their banners," he said.