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In pursuing his vision of public service, Ed Davidson is uncommonly focused. He tries to live his life according to the Buddhist principle of nonattachment, and cultivates what he calls a "yoga of work." He doesn't drink or smoke, and eats sparingly. He doesn't take days off. He doesn't own a home. He says he sleeps only two or three hours at a time on the couch in his dive shop, with friends in the Keys, or in the cabin of a 60-foot mahogany pirate galleon, the Dutchess, which he stores in a Marathon boat yard. "I'm not house trained, and I'm not interested in having a lifestyle," he claims. "One of the things that makes me unnerving as an adversary is that I can do without everything."
Conchs - Keys natives - don't much care for Davidson's style or his brand of preaching. And although he has a great affinity for the Keys, Davidson, citing his Northeastern upbringing, says he has never developed much affection for Conchs. He points out that the local gene pool has been stocked for three centuries with renegades, rumrunners, pirates, and outlaws, whose descendants have been known to thumb their noses at the rule of law. "People who presume that they have a personal, parochial right to squander a world-class resource, well, that's offensive," says Davidson.
For their part, the Conchs claim they are standing up for the inalienable American rights to property and productive labor. Two quotes from the same 1983 newspaper story illustrate the opposing and seemingly irreconcilable visions of the Keys' destiny. At the time, a Monroe County grand jury investigating commercial development in North Key Largo had called for a building moratorium until Keys legislators studied the environmental impact of condo construction and prepared a comprehensive land-use plan for the area. "We are talking about finishing the devastation of the Florida Keys if we don't stop everything until we have those plans," Davidson hollered. Jerry Hernandez, then mayor of the Monroe County Commission, saw it differently: "Any building moratorium in the Keys would be economically devastating. It would mean instant unemployment."
Davidson had first stumbled up against the classic Conch mentality at a public meeting soon after he left the Navy. "For the first time in my adult life I wasn't doing anything important," he recalls. "I was in limbo. I literally sat down under a tree and said, `God, what do I do now?' And I was still waiting for Him to give me an answer when I went to this meeting and heard that reactionary son of a bitch equate all the sacrifice I'd gone through to his own right to reap a windfall profit from the public domain."
At the meeting Davidson mentions, the lone reform-minded member of the Monroe County Commission was trying to explain to an angry crowd the necessity of limiting new water permits - construction papers that allow residential and commercial properties to be connected to the county water supply. As Davidson remembers it, one man stood up and denounced the commissioner as un-American, recounting the story of his son-in-law who had fought Communists in Vietnam and come back home to find he couldn't get a water permit for his new house. It was too much for Davidson. "I said, `Wait a goddamn minute...,'" he recalls. He's been saying the same thing ever since.
At Port Bougainville, about a mile north of where busy U.S. 1 meets the quieter Card Sound Road in North Key Largo, the weeds are in control. Wood rats fumble in the underbrush, and young mangroves have begun to clog the acres of empty boat slips. Near the artificial lagoon, blasted out of oolite a decade ago, a family of blue heron has taken up residence.
Upward of 7000 wealthy sun-lovers once hoped to live here like latter-day Gatsbys in the last pristine stretch of the Florida Keys. But what was to be a half-billion-dollar luxury condo development - the biggest ever conceived for Monroe County - is now a rotting, half-finished monument to greed and bad planning. From atop the windowless, five-story Port Bougainville bell tower, you can see the dozen model units, scavenged and burned by vandals, and the unpaved roads overgrown with vines. The black water of the canals, meant for merry yachting traffic and Venetian reveries, now lies in eerie backwoods silence. No barman tends the mock nineteenth-century beer wagon near the main dock. A chalkboard, intended to list the menu of the day, is blank, and saplings are firmly rooted on the open-air dance floor. Over the years, half the red clay tiles have been yanked from Port Bougainville's community center, an elegant, fourteen-room Mediterranean-style villa with carved-stone balustrades and finely arched porticoes.
Once in a while - not too often - Ed Davidson likes to come back here to visit the subject of his loudest and longest environmental exhortation. "I call this place the ghost of development's past," he says, his smile half-triumphant, half-wistful. A hawk passes over the ruins of Port Bougainville, riding the warm currents of the air at sunset. Davidson watches it for a time and says, "It's kind of spooky, standing in the middle of something you've helped bankrupt."