Philip E. Steinberg

Bridging the Florida Keys – Philip E. Steinberg

As many island studies scholars have stressed, the home-space of island communities includes not just the dry land on which island dwellers sleep but also the oceanic channels of movement that play such an important part in their everyday lives. Even when there are no fixed links connecting an island with nearby areas of the mainland (or with another island), island dwellers’ identities and livelihoods are impacted by vectors of connection just as they are shaped by isolation. Thus, the history of any island is, in part, a history of bridges, metaphorical as well as material.Of course, the nature of these oceanic connections will differ depending on (among other factors) whether these connections are aided by the presence of a material, or physical bridge. But a central point of this chapter is that an island cannot be classified simply as bridged or not-bridged. All islands are, in a certain sense, bridged. Ocean channels without material bridges may be as efficient facilitators of connection as are channels with fixed-link structures. Conversely, material bridges may do more than just connect two bodies of land. Sometimes, a bridge is mobilized to divide. Sometimes a bridge is a destination in its own right. A bridge may connect in one direction but not in the other. Occasionally, it is not even clear when a physical structure is a bridge.

The complexities of the bridge, as both a material and metaphorical construct, are considered in this chapter through a study of the bridges that span the Florida Keys, a chain of islands stretching westward for over 210 km (130 miles), from Elliott Key, just southeast of Miami, to Key West, 145 km (90 miles) north of Cuba. Although this chapter covers the entire island chain, the focus is on Key West, the inhabited island farthest from the Florida mainland and the southernmost point in the continental United States.

Depending on specific circumstances, bridges can be seen as either supporting or threatening an island’s identity, independence, and right to self-determination. In any social conflict, some individuals may wish a bridge to connect, others may wish it to divide, others may wish it to connect in one direction only, and still others may wish to retain control over the flows that travel across its surface. This is as true for metaphorical bridges as for physical fixed-link connections.

Every bridge is a site of both opportunity and vulnerability, and thus there is ongoing contestation as island dwellers attempt to shape bridges to suit their needs.