Bazo: ‘There’s something about this island’

"The main thing I remember is that back in the early ‘50s, everybody knew everybody.”

If you get your con leche at Sandy’s in the morning, it doesn’t seem that a lot has changed since Frank Bazo’s childhood. And with the number of friends that gather around every morning, it seems that, even if everybody doesn’t know everybody, they all know Frank.

Bazo is a fourth-generation Conch, as much a part of Key West as grits and grunts. He remembers growing up near the old Cuban Club, the way Mr. Lopez, the old fisherman next door, shared his catch of turtles and grunts with the neighbors.

“The old women used to boil their laundry outside, then hang it on the line. People were just good to each other. Neighbors were always there to help and you didn’t have to lock your doors.”

Bazo has watched the island grow.

“Back then, there was nothing but coconut trees out there by the Casa Marina. They were so thick you couldn’t walk through there. And quiet. We used to play ball in the streets and never see a car.

“On Saturday nights, families would get dressed up. They would stroll down Truman and Duval. The men would talk; the women would shop in the Kress windows. Later they would go dancing at the Cuban Club.”

Key West’s small population was somewhat segregated, Bazo remembers. There was a Cuban neighborhood, a black neighborhood, and a Conch neighborhood. He said it was so strongly territorial that he seldom left his small vicinity to venture toward the seaport end of town — all of a mile away.

Bazo has worked for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Postal Service, and in a variety of other occupations around the island. He served his country in Korea. But outside of a short stint in Tampa, he has never lived off the rock.

“There’s something about this island,” he said. “I love everything about it. I close my eyes and I still see all those people I knew in the past.”

Bazo’s art is, for him, a means of preserving old Key West. With wood and canvas and paint, he creates portraits of the old businesses around town — some from memory, some by squinting real hard to see through the new paint and signage to the places he knew as a kid.

P.T.’s has one of his works, so does 5 Brothers. He made one for Sandy’s and one for Sloppy Joe’s. His most recent creation is a portrait of the old Key West High School — not the Flagler Avenue complex, but the one Bazo attended that is now Glynn Archer Elementary School.

This year will be Bazo’s 50th class reunion. He created the school building portrait especially for the reunion.

“I do the artwork to bring the old houses back to life. I’m not going to leave my island. I was born here and they’re going to plant me here.”