An Old Florida Melting Pot

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The young man dressed in a monk’s costume chats with me as he hands out candy to children celebrating Guavaween. He works in Tampa’s Cuban community, Ybor City, in a well-stocked vintage-clothing store, and people are walking in to look for costumes for the local Latin-flavored Halloween celebration. He says that he’s disillusioned with the area, which had its start in the late 187Os as the base for a thriving handmade cigar industry and also supported many local shops. In more recent times, he tells me, Ybor City has been overtaken by some city official’s dream of turning the main strip, Seventh Avenue, into a Bourbon Street replica. For many Ybor City residents this has meant watching the slow disappearance of much of the area’s Latin heritage as shops cede their leases over to landlords who then open up raucous bars. Even Guavaween seems like not much more than a collection of hot dog and beer booths. But after spending an afternoon there, I found that Ybor City’s heritage is not gone, just somewhat obscured by the commerce that is trying to save it. The tranquil Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which has built a reputation as both a leisure and cultural center, is in some ways an ideal place for Ybor City to regain its footing.

Tampa is an international port, and because over the years it has been home to a variety of immigrant groups and wealthy entrepreneurs, Ybor City makes up only a small part of its scene. While I was there last October, I visited the small but excellent St. Petersburg Museum of History; its Walk Through Time Gallery tells the continuing story of the people of Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Pinellas , or “point of pines,” was the word the Spanish colonists used for the tree-filled land that was populated by the Tocobaga and Timucua tribes. Florida was briefly owned by the British in 1763 but then fell back into Spanish hands, and the area’s population eventually grew to include blacks escaping slavery who lived among the Seminoles, American soldiers who arrived around 1820, and an influx of Cubans, among others. Vintage ads from real estate agents like “Mitchell the Sand Man,” selling dreams of homes near sand and sea, date from Florida’s comeback years in the late 1940s. The last display in the timeline, a collection of colorful walking sticks and songbooks like “Florida My Florida,” captures the essential spirit of sunny leisure here, but all the exhibits leading up to it make the visitor aware of the impressive diversity behind the ease.

Ybor City has its own museum, housed in an old community bakery, that summons up the atmosphere of the city’s past, particularly during the cigar industry’s boom years in the 1920s. Cases display gorgeous old cigar labels and photos of shops selling Cuban groceries with small apartments above and smiling women in Spanish-style dresses posing on the street. Cigar makers were well cared for back then. Their salaries averaged fifteen to eighteen dollars a week, and they enjoyed breaks during the day and the privilege of smoking at work. Workers paid a lector twenty-five cents out of their pay to read newspapers and novels to them in Spanish. When the city founder and cigarfactory owner Don Vincente Martinez Ybor bought his land here, he set aside a portion of it for houses for his employees, and one of these single-story structures, La Casita (the little house), is preserved a block from the museum, with replicas of original furniture and a kitchen complete with a Cuban coffee-maker of the period and an ancient straw-covered bottle of Bacardi rum.

There was occasional unrest in Ybor City. The Cuban community had a longstanding resentment of the Spanish for their oppressive rule over Cuba as a colony through 1898, and Spaniards in Ybor City were generally distrusted until Cuba gained its independence. During the Spanish-American War, Spanish citizens of Tampa appealed to the government for protection from Cubans and Americans. But many different groups, including Germans and Italians, settled here in relative peace and most formed social clubs that also provided monetary and medical aid in times of need. L’Unione Italiana, a stately, columned building on Seventh Avenue and dating from 1918, is still open to members.

When the dual impact of industrialization and the Depression hit the cigar industry, Ybor City went into a decline that shut down factories and caused families to move elsewhere, leaving the community depleted, but if you stroll the city’s streets today, you will still find the pleasing flavor of the old town. Two-story buildings, some with iron balconies, line the main street; many have old advertisements for cheese and olive oil painted onto their sides. The heavily tiled, elegant Columbia Restaurant and La Tropicana Café are two successful survivors, while Tampa’s oldest restaurant, Las Novedadas (opened in 1892), now sits vacant and awaits a tenant. For some, changes are welcome. A cigar merchant tells me that although Ybor City has undergone some hard transitions, the once-deserted streets are now safer because of its new nightlife, and the renewed national interest in cigars has prompted the opening of a new Ybor City factory that will be housed in the original factory’s building. His own shop, stocked with cigars made in a Tampa factory, is busy until closing time.