Ineffable Miami: Ybor City, Tampa by Sydney Gavula

Biography

My name is Sydney Gavula and I am currently as sophomore at Florida International University studying Chemistry with a Minor in Criminal Justice. With this, I hope to further my education and receive my Master’s in Forensic Science so that I can work in a law enforcement lab. I am from Tampa, Florida and yet I have not completely experienced my hometown. Each different part has its own history and I am excited to finally learn more about where I grew up.

Geography

Ybor City is a National Historic District located in Tampa, Florida, the entrance to which is marked by an archway. The archway is a dividing line between the now urbanized Downtown Tampa and the historic neighborhood. Downtown is located just southwest of Ybor City making this difference in environment distinct as Ybor City is comprised of historic, brick buildings preserving the original infrastructure. Surrounding the other sides of the area are also modernized suburban neighborhoods such as Seminole Heights just north of it and to the east Orient Park, the location of the Florida State Fairgrounds. (“Ybor City Historic District”)

The neighborhood of Ybor City works to preserve the industrial downtown that was originally built in the late 1800’s, yet also embodies the modern culture of Tampa’s community. Most of the business of Ybor City is saturated along 7th Avenue and many of the buildings along the strip are made up of brick and are no taller than at most four stories conserving the feel of the industrial city of the past. Due to the fact that this area was originally built to serve as a place to house the cigar factories, there is not much green found in the heart of Ybor and many of the neighborhood’s parks are outside of the 7th Avenue strip. (“Ybor City Historic District”)

History

As like many other regions of Florida, the Spanish came into Tampa Bay in the 16th century in the time of conquests. However, there was little Spanish rule and permanent overtaking in the area as the Spanish focused on settling the eastern side of Florida. Due to this, the development of Tampa Bay didn’t begin until 1824 when the U.S. Army established Fort Brooke. However, other than the building of the fort, there was little further development until 1845. For a long period of time, the population of the Tampa Bay area remained small, around 700 residents, until 1884 when the railroad was extended to the Hillsborough River and provided access to new areas of Tampa Bay. (“Tampa History”)

Just two years later, in 1886, Vicente Martínez -Ybor founded Ybor City on undeveloped land in the Tampa Bay area with his cigar factory being the center of the city’s success. His factory, which was once the biggest brick structure in Florida, brought in a wave of immigrants, primarily from Cuba but also hailed from Spain, Italy and even more European countries. This influx of immigrants caused the Tampa Bay population to rise to more than 3,000 people and by the second year had doubled to over 6,000. Not only was Ybor City home to Martinez-Ybor’s factory but more cigar manufacturers followed in his footsteps, and the neighborhood also became the homes of all the workers. Homes for the workers began erupting around the neighborhood, many built by Martínez-Ybor and others to house their own workers and still stand to this day, marking one of the largest concentrations of historic houses. Not only was the infrastructure of the city influenced by the influx in residents, but so was the social aspect, especially because of the diversity that was present. Between 1890 and 1920, ethnic social clubs and organizations began to arise that offered not only medical plans but also other services that benefited their members. Notably of these clubs were El Centro Español, the Marti-Maceo Club and L’Unione Italiana (the Italian Club). (“Ybor City Historic District”)

By 1900, Ybor City and its cigar manufacturing boosted Tampa to become what could be considered the “cigar capital of the world”. Martínez-Ybor’s endeavors caused many other cigar manufacturers to follow and build factories in Tampa Bay and Ybor City specifically. The workers produced not only what can be considered the “highest-quality hand-rolled cigars in the world” but also the iconic beautiful boxes that the cigars were sold in. In the 1920s these cigar manufacturers and Tampa’s cigar economy peaked, however it didn’t last long. When the Great Depression occurred throughout the 1930’s, the cigar industry in Tampa was hit hard and many people ended up leaving the city. Then after World War II, Ybor City fell into even more economic trouble as it struggled to recover from the war long after the rest of Tampa’s industries had. By the 1960’s when the area began to be urbanized, parts of Ybor City got demolished. Around that time, there was a push to preserve Ybor City’s culture and historic buildings, resulting in what is remaining being named a National Historic Landmark. Now, it still houses all of the historic buildings that the businesses and factories operated in and some of those businesses still stand today. The Columbia Restaurant is the oldest operating restaurant in Ybor City and still has its doors open to guests today. Additionally, the city serves as a popular night life environment for the community as well as still maintaining the history of not only its own neighborhood but Tampa Bay as a whole. (“Ybor City Historic District”)

Demographics

As the neighborhood of Ybor City is relatively small, the only data that is specific to the area comes from private surveys rather than the official census data, whose data is broader to include all of the city of Tampa. Overall in Tampa, according to the U.S. Census Bureau the population is approximately 392,890 with the per capita income in 2018 being $34, 570. Additionally, 51.6% of the population is female, 21.8% of residents are under 18 years of age and 12.3% are 65 years or older. Ethnically, the population is approximately made up of 44.6% percent White, 25.7% Hispanic, and 24.2% Black or African American. (“U.S. Census… Tampa City, Florida”)

Comparatively, via additional private surveys, the population of Ybor City is quite small at only 5,216, however, the area has a very large population density due to compact neighborhoods and extensive apartment living. The median age in the neighborhood is 35.5 with a male to female ratio of 1:1 and a median income of between $25,000 and $40,000. While the survey states that 46.95% of Ybor City’s population is White and 43.85% are Black or African American, 24.3% of people are Hispanic, they were just included in either of the race options rather than separately. (“Areavibes”)

Interview with Lynn Love and Frank Reyes

Frank Reyes and Lynn Love are cousins, and while they do not currently live in Ybor City, the neighborhood played a big role in their childhoods. They provided their own experiences in the area and how they think that Ybor City has changed from when they were growing up to today.

Sydney: Who was the first of your family to live or work in Ybor City and when was that?

Lynn: My family lived just west of the river on Cypress Street, my grandparents, mom, aunts and uncles. My grandfather Gussipee Vaglica had a small restaurant at the corner of Broad Street and Nebraska. It was named “White Spot”, not Ybor but I am sure they used Ybor. And as a kid myself, I remember seeing tile stacked in the backyard and was told my grandfather had a company that made stone and tile.

Sydney: What did your family do for a living while in the area and did they have any relation to the cigar manufacturing or selling?

Lynn: I do not know of any direct connections to the cigar business.

Frank: Lynn’s Uncle, which is my grandfather, did not work in the cigar business but would go once a week to purchase second hand rolled cigars at Tampa Sweethearts on 4th Street in Ybor. He would always have cigars in his shirt pocket and gave them out freely to his friends. He even used them to trade with the security guard for entrance at ballgames like the Tampa Tarpons when I was a kid.

Sydney: What’s your favorite story that has been told and passed down through the family?

Lynn: There are many, many stories. One was a still located under the garage apartment that you entered through the chicken coup.

Frank: During the summer, I would go to my grandfather’s house and he would take me to breakfast at local restaurants like La Teresita. This is where I started have café con leche and Cuban toast. It was a common occurrence that that while I was there the Mayor of Tampa and numerous county commissions and local leaders would also come in to eat. My grandfather would introduce me to them. It was so different then as they would sit and talk to everyone and many of them grew up together.

Sydney: Do you have any of your own personal experiences from Ybor City or the surrounding area that you would like to share?

Lynn: We would sometimes go to the Silver Ring for Cuban sandwiches and deviled crabs and we would get a candy I think was an Astro Pop.

Frank: Growing up, Ybor really wasn’t a go to place or even considered much different, it was more of a neighborhood in South Tampa. You were there either because you worked or lived in the area. Columbia Restaurant was considered a place where important Tampa figures would meet and work while they ate. The novelty of Ybor being unique had not come yet.

Sydney: Based on what you remember from childhoods and stories compared to today, how do you think the area has changed? And in what ways has it stayed the same?

Lynn: I only feel that Ybor was more essential to the economy and business needs in the “old days”. I think today it is more of a novelty and somewhat of just and entertainment district. In the 1970’s I used to do all my Christmas shopping in Ybor. I think it still has value and is unique, but the commerce element has changed. The Italian club still has functions and along with others like the Cuban Club they are very cool. A play called “The Cigar Box Revue” was done live at Ybor Square in the 1970’s featuring a lot of Tampa history, probably well before its time.

Frank: While this city grows in population, it is still a small city because many of the families are generational. I still see names and faces of people I played ball or went to school with who are now leaders and shakers in the community.

Sydney: Overall, what’s your personal opinion on Ybor City and its environment today?

Lynn: I personally do not go to Ybor often, I will go for a lunch or a particular event, but generally do not go often or much after dark.

Frank: While there are some pockets of “yesteryear and nostalgia” that are still part of Ybor including a few cigar factories and restaurants, the Italian and Cuban Club, it is now really built for young people and nightlife. Stories my grandmother would tell me of leaving your doors unlocked and walking down the street in safety have now become about walking on the main avenues and leaving before for dark.

Landmarks

Ybor City Museum

The Ybor City Museum State Park is housed in the Ferlita Bakery, which originally opened in 1896. From that time until the 1960s, the family provided bread and other baked goods which were loved by people around the area. While the original structure was burned in a fire, the bakery was rebuilt and that is what still stands today, housing the museum. (“Ybor City Museum State Park”)

Inside the Ferlita Bakery, the museum houses multiple exhibits that talk about the history of Ybor City. The exhibits provide information about the city as a whole as well as it’s cigar-based economy and the factories that were housed there. Additionally, tours are also provided to see what a cigar worker’s house would look like in the beginning of the 20th century, when the city was entirely comprised of cigar workers. (“Ybor City Museum State Park”)

Not only is the museum in the bakery house, the Museum State Park spans about half a city block and also includes an ornamental garden and multiple of the restored houses that were mentioned previously. The garden reflects a traditional Mediterranean style and can be rented out for events such as weddings. To be able to experience all of this, the fee is only four dollars as a general admission and children under five are given free admission. (“Ybor City Museum State Park”)

Sheriff’s Office History Center

A relatively new historic location in Tampa is the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office History Center which was opened in 2016. Located in an old historic house that was renovated for this purpose, the history center was opened to provide information on the history of the police department dating all the way back to 1845. (“Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office…”)

Some of the historical pieces that are showcased in the History Center are “uniforms, equipment, photos, jail logs and badges” dating back to the late 1800’s even. While a number of these artifacts were sitting in the possession of the department itself, others were donated from relatives of deputies that had uniforms or photos that had been passed down. (“Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office…”)

The goal of opening the Sheriff’s Office History Center was to make sure that the history of the department was preserved and so far it is succeeding and doing just that.

Tribute to Vicente Martinez-Ybor

Located in the central hub of Ybor City on the seventh avenue strip is a statue commemorating Vicente Martínez-Ybor. He is credited with founding and developing Ybor City by building his large cigar factory on some empty land in Tampa, which jump started Ybor City’s cigar economy.

Martínez-Ybor was born in Valencia, Spain, however he moved to and lived in Spanish Cuba for 15 years. He founded a brand of cigars called “Prince of Wales” and while it was successful, he had to leave Cuba and immigrate to the United States. Initially, Martínez-Ybor tried to expand his factories in Key West and New York City, before eventually moving it to Tampa, due in large part to it being close to Cuba. In 1886, Martínez-Ybor opened his cigar factory in what is now called Ybor City and due to the influx in workers as well as other manufacturers who followed suit, the population of Tampa Bay soared almost tripling in the first year. Due to this, Vicente Martínez-Ybor is credited with being the founder of Ybor City and in some ways the modern Tampa Bay. (“Ybor City Historic District”)

Green

Centennial Park

While the heart of Ybor City doesn’t contain much greenery or parks due to its industrial downtown beginnings, there are some small parks. The Centennial Park is the main hub for events in Ybor City and hosts big ones such as the Tampa Pride Parade and a weekly farmers market as well as other community events. Throughout the park are statues and memorials to historic moments and people of the city. Most famous is the statue of a family recognizing all of the first immigrants and those that followed that had come to Tampa and helped found the city.

Jose Marti Park

Interestingly enough, the Jose Marti Park was a gift and is actually Cuban property rather than U.S. property. While relatively small, this park stands as a symbol of freedom for the city’s large Cuban community and has a more sentimental meaning than the other parks in Ybor. Located in the center of the park is a statue to Jose Marti, who is considered a national hero in Cuba and even called the “Cuban liberator” because of his impact on the liberation of the country. (McVey, 2019)

East Ybor Park

For a more traditional park, one would have to travel outside of the main seventh avenue strip, for example into East Ybor to visit the East Ybor Park. Initially an abandoned lot, the park was implemented and built in an effort to improve the state of the neighborhood, which originally wasn’t much of a safe neighborhood. Today, the crime in the park’s neighborhood is down and the park serves as a fun party, picnic and event area with a playground for children. Additionally, it also serves as a popular meeting place for teenagers to go and play basketball and see their friends as well. (Guzzo, 2019)

Transportation

Tampa Bay in general isn’t known for its public transportation and it can often be the topic of conversation once people are in downtown. Because of this, the main mode of transportation in Tampa as well as Ybor City is via car, however bus is also a big form of transportation as well.

While taking the bus is often utilized by members of the community, it is often only out of necessity due to the lack of availability or level of trouble that traveling by the public transportation causes. In 2017, Tampa Bay ranked 17th in the nation in population of the country’s largest metro areas however was either second to last or last in how public transportation was supported by the government funds. Because of this lack of funds, the public transportation becomes more of a hassle to members of the community by sometimes almost tripling the amount of time it takes for people to commute to work. (Johnston and Zhang, 2017) Based on the U.S. Census Bureau, the average travel time to commute to work is 24.5 minutes, however if traveling by bus this could easily extend to a longer time. (“U.S. Census… Tampa City, Florida”)

This pattern extends also specifically into Ybor City, which sees many of its community commuting by either car or bus to work. There are additional modes of transportation available in Ybor City specifically such as the TECO Streetcar. However, the streetcar only extends to stops located in Ybor City itself and Downtown Tampa which limits the ability to commute to an office that isn’t located in the downtown area. While the streetcar is a fun way to travel when spending the day in Ybor City and its surrounding areas, it is not practical for everyday transportation for most residents of Ybor City.

Food

King Corona Cigars

Located on 7th Avenue is the King Corona Cigar Café, which ties in the Cuban culture that surrounds Ybor City with the cigars that are a staple for the area. In the café, one can purchase a variety of different types of cigars, some even made right there in Ybor City. Not only does the shop serve as a popular cigar shop, but they also serve Cuban coffee, teas, breakfast dishes, salads and sandwiches as well. They take pride in showing everything Ybor City has to offer via the food, environment and as well as providing copies of the nation’s only tri-lingual newspaper, La Gaceta which is printed in Spanish, English and Italian, for visitors to read.

While King Corona Cigars Café was only founded in 1998, a young restaurant in comparison to some of the other businesses in historic Ybor City, it still stands as a must visit for people in the area. The casual environment allows for members of the community to enjoy some food and good company, as well as experience the unique culture that Ybor City possesses. (“King Corona Cigars”)

La Segunda Central Bakery

La Segunda Bakery got its start as Juan More’s bakery to sell traditional Cuban bread and was established in 1915. Since then, it has grown and expanded the bakery to selling all types of pastries and café con leche and even serves as a major distributor of the Cuban bread that got the whole businesses started. While the bakery has grown into a popular spot for all locals to visit, it has stayed in the More family as one of the longest family-owned bakeries in the Tampa Bay area. (“Our Story…”)

The bakery is a popular place for commuters to stop at and grab breakfast with a café con leche while on their way to work. They have everything ranging from Cuban toast to avocado toast to breakfast sandwiches and even serve lunch with specialty sandwiches and salads. Visitors to the bakery can choose to stay and enjoy their lunch at the bakery or even just pop in to grab some food and pastries and take it with them, whether it be to work, a meeting or even just back home.

Carmine’s

Carmine’s is a restaurant along Ybor City’s 7th Avenue that embraces the fusion of cultures that Ybor City is made up of. Foods inspired by Cuban, Italian and Spanish cultures can be ordered there both for lunch and for dinner. During the lunch time rush, Cuban inspired dishes such as their well-known Tampa Cuban sandwich are served and at dinner, the gears change to a more Italian inspired menu. Some of those dishes include multiple pasta dishes, fish and meat entrees and their famous deviled crab. Carmine’s focuses on making sure that the history of Ybor City is represented in their menu as well as providing an environment that celebrates Ybor’s history by onlooking the 7th Avenue strip. (“History of Carmine’s”)

The restaurant was started by Carmine Iavarone in the 1980’s and while it didn’t always serve as extensive and impressive of a menu as they due today as only a cafeteria, it began to bring more people into the neighborhood for dinner. Originally, there was only one other restaurant in Ybor City that served dinner, so the goal was to open up a restaurant that people could come to at night and celebrate and enjoy life. Today it continues to do just that and provides one of the biggest varieties of dishes around the area. (Kelley, 2018)

Businesses

The Columbia Restaurant

In 1905, the Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, was established in Ybor City by Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. and began selling Cuban sandwiches and Cuban coffee to cigar workers. Since then, the business has continued to grow under the same family and has grown to be one of the most well-known restaurants in Tampa Bay. The building has expanded to an entire city block and now includes a new kitchen as well as multiple dining rooms, making it the largest Spanish restaurant in the world all while the food continues to be authentic, and the experience that the Columbia provides is like no other. (“Columbia Restaurant”)

While it has continued to serve food through both lunch and dinner, the business has expanded and not only can one go and enjoy a meal, but a live Flamenco show is also now running every night. Furthermore, this is also a frequent spot for many school field trips as it is the perfect example of Ybor City’s history, as well as being a brilliant spot for lunch. Not only has the actual restaurant expanded, but the Columbia family business now has multiple smaller restaurants, mostly located throughout the Tampa Bay, and is still all owned and operated by the same family that started the company.

J. C Newman Cigar Company

While J.C. Newman Cigar Company didn’t get its start in Tampa itself, its international headquarters are centered in Ybor City after purchasing and replacing another cigar company Cuesta-Rey in 1958. They are America’s oldest family-owned cigar maker after it was founded by J.C. Newman in Ohio. The business moving to Ybor City specifically showcases just how much the neighborhood revolves around the cigar making history and the importance that it had in building the area. Since beginning, the company has taken pride in being family operated throughout it all, its hand-rolled cigars, and being the only large factory still manufacturing cigars in the area.

Currently, J.C. Newman Cigar Company still manufactures and sells different types of cigars all around the world and welcomes visitors to go and experience their business for themselves. In the coming months, the company is going to finish restorations on their factory that will then provide a more extensive museum showcasing their family history in the cigar business. Additionally, people will also be able to see cigars being rolled by hand as well as other first-hand experiences. (“America’s Oldest…”)

La Gaceta Newspaper

The La Gaceta Newspaper is the only tri-lingual newspaper in the nation and is available in Spanish, English and Italian. It was started as a Spanish daily newspaper in 1922 in Tampa and the business has stayed in the Manteiga family through today. An English portion of the newspaper was added in the 50s and eventually an Italian section was added as well.

Topics covered in the newspaper include local news such as interviews with locals, Latin social events and sports columns. Also included are articles pertaining to local politics when necessary, the interest in local politics is what caused the push for an English section of the newspaper in the 50s. Local venders and just about anyone can pay to advertise in the newspaper as well. La Gaceta was recently named the oldest family-owned and minority-owned newspaper in the United States and with its headquarters in Ybor City continues to be enjoyed by the entire community. (“Our History”, La Gaceta)

Summary

Ybor City takes a massive amount of pride in their history, especially in the influence that cigar making had on founding the area. Because of this, it still stands true to what Vicente Martínez-Ybor had started when moving his cigar factory to Tampa Bay. It’s one of the few areas in Tampa that just by walking down its main strip can you see as much history in the structure of buildings, the businesses and the culture. This is what draws people into the neighborhood because it is such a stark difference from the environment just a few minutes away in the heart of Downtown Tampa.

Although Ybor City has so much to offer, one of the major problems in the area is the mistrust that surrounds the city at night. Growing up in the area, I was always told that you should never go to Ybor at night due to the large amount of crime that they had. Today, while crime still continues to be a problem in the area, it is being revitalized into a safer community and although it still has its problems and the mistrust is still there, the neighborhood has seen more improvement in the safety of its residents.

In a city where everything is modern and commercialized, the down to earth family-owned restaurants, cafes and historic roots of Ybor City is celebrated. This is through annual events such as Festa Italiana and Fiesta Day, a celebration of the many cultures that came to the area in the late 1800’s. While Ybor City emphasizes the importance of its history, the community also celebrates more modern cultures very well as it hosts the Tampa Pride Parade every year and also has become a large piece of the night-life in the bay. The blend of history and todays environment is what makes Ybor City so special and unique to visitors and people who live there.

References

“America’s Oldest Family-Owned Premium Cigar Maker.” J.C. Newman, http://www.jcnewman.com/.

Areavibes. “Ybor City, Tampa, FL Demographics.” Ybor City, FL Population & Demographics, http://www.areavibes.com/tampa-fl/ybor+city/demographics/.

“Columbia Restaurant.” Columbia, http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/The-Columbia-Experience/History.

Cotadmin. “Tampa History.” City of Tampa, 4 Jan. 2016, www.tampagov.net/info/tampa-history.

Guzzo, Paul. “How a Park Cleaned up East Ybor.” Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Times, 22 Aug. 2019, http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/How-a-park-cleaned-up-East-Ybor_171145987/.

“Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Opens History Center in Ybor City.” Spectrum News, 5 May 2016, http://www.baynews9.com/fl/tampa/news/2016/5/3/hillsborough_county_.

“History of Carmine’s: Carmines.” Carmine’s Ybor, carminesybor.com/history-of-carmines/.

Johnston, Caitlin, and Eli Zhang. “Tampa Bay Has One of America’s Worst Transit Systems. Here’s Why.” Times Analysis: Tampa Bay Has One of the Worst Public Transit Systems in America. Here’s Why. | Data | Tampa Bay Times, 16 Feb. 2017, projects.tampabay.com/projects/2017/data/public-transportation-worst/.

Kelley, McKenna. “History of Carmine’s in Ybor City.” Tampa Magazine, 4 Aug. 2018, tampamagazines.com/history-of-carmines-in-ybor-city/.

“King Corona Cigars.” King Corona Cigars, 22 Oct. 2019, kingcoronacigars.com/.

McVey, Cait. “Hispanic Heritage Month: Ybor City’s José Martí Park.” Spectrum News, 30 Sept. 2019, http://www.baynews9.com/fl/tampa/news/2019/09/30/hispanic-heritage-month-ybor-city-s-jos–mart–park.

“Our History.” La Gaceta Newspaper, La Gaceta Newspaper, lagacetanewspaper.com/our-history/.

“Our Story. Authentic Cuban Bread.: La Segunda Bakery in Ybor & South Tampa – La Segunda Bakery in Ybor & South Tampa: Est. 1915.” La Segunda Bakery in Ybor & South Tampa | Est. 1915, http://www.lasegundabakery.com/our-story.

“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Tampa City, Florida.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/tampacityflorida.

“Ybor City Historic District—American Latino Heritage: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/ybor_city_historic_district.html.

“Ybor City Museum State Park.” Florida State Parks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, http://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/ybor-city-museum-state-park.

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