The young Latina leaned against the door jamb, disinterestedly watching tourists stream past. Her four-inch stilettos, strapless bustier, and leather hotpants suggested the oldest profession on earth, yet she stood in the doorway of a family-owned bodega where Ybor City’s residents gather each day to sip strong espresso, share gossip, and slam dominoes. Unlike Miami Beach, where I was disappointed by the lack of Latin flavor, Ybor City is the real deal: an historic Cuban district in Florida’s Tampa Bay area.
Some years ago I had lunched at Ybor City’s Columbia Restaurant, famous for their authentic Spanish cuisine. In the light of day, empty storefronts, peeling paint, and wind-blown trash suggested despair and decay. I checked the neighborhood off my list of places to see, never intending to return. But as fate would have it, I was unexpectedly detained in Tampa this past Halloween eve. As the last rays of daylight slowly faded I searched for a hotel along unfamiliar streets and suddenly found myself in Ybor City.
This was not the Ybor City I remembered! Curvy metal trellises decorated with white lights arched over the main street as far as I could see. Vivid neon signs threw reflections into the street and the aroma of strong coffee mingled with rich Cuban cigar smoke. Under cover of darkness, neglect melted away, replaced by pools of golden light spilling from bars and cafes and throbbing Latin beats. Buildings that had once seemed dilapidated suddenly oozed charm.
Ybor City owes its existence to the cigar industry. In 1884, Henry B. Plant completed his railroad to Tampa and was in the process of improving the port facilities at Port Tampa. Realizing that Cuban leaf tobacco, the best in the world, and the finished tobacco products could easily be imported and exported, Vicente Martinez Ybor founded Ybor City as a cigar manufacturing center in 1886. He quickly attracted experienced cigar workers from Spain, Cuba and Italy, establishing Tampa as the “Cigar Capital of the World.”
Life in those early years revolved around social clubs that were organized to serve specific ethnic groups (L’unione Italiana for Italians, El Circulo Cubano for Cubans, Club Marti-Maceo for Afro-Cubans, among others). Not only did these clubs preserve the cultural heritage from one generation to the next, members could also subscribe to services that provided cradle-to-grave health care, death benefits, recreational facilities, and a calendar of social events. Ybor City evolved into a cultural mecca, supporting theaters that featured opera, vaudeville, ethnic comedy, and drama; labor and political organizations; community festivals supported by the cigar manufacturers; dozens of newspapers; art venues; and a thriving retail center. The cigar industry being the only large-scale manufacturing activity in the area, Ybor City flourished until the early 1960s, when embargoes against Cuban tobacco finally sent the “Cigar Capital” into decline.
Can’t view the above slide show of Ybor City in the Tampa Bay area of Florida? Click here.
Today Ybor City is once again thriving, resurrected as tourist destination and National Historic Landmark. In the smoke shops and cafes lining La Setima (Seventh Street), Cuban women cut cured tobacco leaves and painstakingly roll fat stogies by hand. Visitors share authentic tapas (Spanish appetizers) and Sangria at sidewalk cafes. In keeping with the history of the city’s social organizations, a year-round calendar of events include a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Beer Fest, Festa Italiana, Ybor Aficionado Days, a Cigar Heritage Festival, Santa Fest, and the Outback Bowl Parade.
Perhaps the most unique event on its calendar is Guavaween, Ybor’s City’s unique Halloween event that attracts 40,000 costumed visitors for a day of kid-themed activities and performances, and a wild, no-holds barred night parade. And although I had initially wondered whether the district offered other ‘less advertised’ services, as I got caught up in the spirit of Guavaween I realized that the bustier and leather-clad Latina was just another reveler, dressed up for the Halloween festivities.
Ybor City is located just east of downtown Tampa, sandwiched between I-4 and I-75 and encompassing the 12-square block area between Nick Nuccio Parkway and 24th Street. An outdoor market is held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Centennial Park, and every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. (excluding summer months) the Ybor City Museum conducts walking tours of La Setima Avenue that focus on the city’s history, culture, and ethnic heritage. Additional information is available through the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.