If Ybor City's backbone was its cigar factories, Cuscaden Park was its heart. The park still exists today, though it is a faint shadow of its former self. Its 500-seat capacity grandstand was demolished, and its baseball fields gave way to soccer fields. To drive past the park today, some would never know that this field was once Ybor City's Field of Dreams.
Long before Mayor Dick Greco was attempting to become the oldest Mayor in the history of Tampa, he was the youngest. Before he boasted of the experience he would bring to the mayoral position, he was the mayor with little experience. Before he was a political legend with his own statue, he had to defeat a political legend that was posthumously honored with a statue. Before he became Mayor Dick Greco, he had to defeat Mayor Nick Nuccio in the 1967 mayoral election, one of the hottest elections the city of Tampa has ever seen, an election that billed the young, handsome upstart against the old political legend. It was a heavyweight battle that changed the history of the city of Tampa forever. And it was a battle that started in 1963 when Mayor Dick Greco was known as City Councilman Dick Greco.
January 10, 2011, marked the 150th anniversary of Florida’s secession from the United States. Florida followed South Carolina and Mississippi and was the third state to leave the Union. The Civil War began three months later when Southern forces fired on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The opening shots of the war were almost directed at Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor, but President Abraham Lincoln decided to resupply the South Carolina fort instead.
Before city leaders envisioned Ybor City as a residential and shopping district, they boasted about bullfights. "It was how we were going to save Ybor City," explained former Mayor Dick Greco.
The red neon "Open" sign in the Franklin Street News Stand window would flicker on at 7 A.M., followed by the neon signs for the news stand's neighbors–the Shoe Hospital and Carmen's Sandwich Shop–shortly after that. A block away, the homeless people sleeping in front of Sacred Heart Church would wake up, roll up their blankets and seek shade from the hot sun.
Downtown Tampa was a shining model of the American landscape in the 1950s. On every street corner, you could find the best jewelry stores, hat shops, and restaurants Tampa had to offer.
Tommy Stephens sat on the patio by his house, watching the first of many nightly visitors to arrive in Ybor City. Leaning back in his chair and nursing a beer, he points to a couple of tourists as they watch a chicken try to fly up a tree next to their car.
In 1897, writer, social commentator, and beisbolero (baseball player) Wenceslao Gálvez y del Monte ("Wen Gálvez") published a small, first-person narrative entitled Tampa: Impresiones de Emigrado. The work critically observes Tampa and its residents. It is one of several turn-of-the-century, Spanish-language publications giving an account of Old Tampa–from its dusty roads to its marble facades.
In the early days of Tampa, you could stand on the banks of the Hillsborough River, and if the wind was blowing just right, you might smell the thick aroma of cedar permeating the air. As cigar factories from Palmetto Beach to West Tampa hummed with workers, several ancillary businesses sprouted to support the booming industry. Restaurants and boarding houses kept workers fed and housed. At the same time, other companies manufactured the equipment and tools necessary to produce quality hand-rolled cigars.
Tampa and Baseball are like café and leche: one strong, pungent, hot, steady, ageless, fresh; neither quite as good apart as they are together. It is hardly possible to find a moment in the city's history when the game was not being played, when it didn't matter, particularly to Tampa's Latin working class. Baseball's economic benefits have also been considerable: today, the estimated total impact of the nine teams training in the Tampa Bay area surpasses $227 million. Tampa and Baseball have been good for one another.
Billy Sunday has been downtown preaching for the past couple of days, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed,” I began, pausing for the dismissive mumbling and laughter to clear the room. “Indeed, the aptly named Mr. Sunday has come to town to save your wretched souls…at least that’s what he says. Mr. Sunday has a bit of what you might call a colored past.
The Tampa Baseball Club of 1884-1885, winners of the South Florida Baseball Championship. Standing, center: Oliver Andreu, Secretary-treasurer. Top row, L-R: W.A. Legate, Charlie Livingston, John A. Jackson, J.A.M. Grable, E.L. Lesley. Bottom row, L-R, Ed Drake, J.C. McKay, B.A. Brown, Al Knight. The team members not present when the photo was taken were A.W. Cuscaden and George A. Bell.–Excerpted from the Tampa Daily Times, November 12, 1924.
Before spring training became the Florida mainstay it is today, baseball began taking root in the Tampa Bay area late in the 19th century. A.M. de Quesada's book, Baseball in Tampa Bay, notes how Union and Confederate soldiers brought the game to the Sunshine State when they returned home from the Civil War. Tampa had a team in the first short-lived Florida State League in 1892.
From 1946-1953, Tampa residents were elated by the Florida International League’s Class B baseball club, the Tampa Smokers. They hit their peak during the post-war boom.
It's Saturday night, and everyone's waiting for the numbers to come in. Several little white balls will be selected, each ball bearing a number. A substantial monetary return is available if your ticket matches the selected ball. Sound familiar?
Pop Cuesta is standing in the middle of Jefferson High School's baseball field, just like he has for the past 37 years, watching about 20 first–and second-year students practice the hook slide, wondering what happened to the fundamentals. He shakes his head as one kid runs toward an imaginary second base and plows into the ground like a sleepy water buffalo. Pop shakes his head. He sends the young junior varsity players on a run around the outfield perimeter. "Let's go, son! Get moving," he shouts calmly. He gathers them around first base and asks, "Does anyone know what a one-way lead is?" He shakes his head again as only a few kids raise their hands. They listen closely as Pop–Coach Cuesta to them–goes over the fundamentals of base running. "Fundamentals," he will repeat repeatedly during the two-hour practice, "base running, bunting, sliding. Nobody taught them to you, so I'll have to teach you all."
During the 1940s, Tampa was embroiled in political corruption. Organized crime and political patronage were rampant. So, with the aid of a few close friends, Albert Knapp began publishing an underground newspaper. The mimeographed paper featured open letters mysteriously signed "Abispo Verdi" in a squiggly hand. Knapp certified each letter using a green stamp pad as "official" with the impression of an anopheles mosquito poised to strike. Albert selected the name Abispo Verdi to mimic the popular radio show, The Green Hornet. He wrote his manifestos in a broken English dialect using Spanish and Italian words that confused grammar and spelling. Each manifesto focused on a particular local scandal and illuminated dirty tricks and chicanery, often in verse and always in ingenuous and humorous terms, with names changed slightly: Raul became Baul (meaning footlocker); Spoto became Spots; Spicola became SpiCocaCola.
For many people, the history of Ybor City ends after the first few decades of the twentieth century, the cigar-making community's golden era. Following a series of devastating changes–the rise of mechanization and the decline of the hand-rolled cigar industry, World War II, government-driven urban renewal, and the separation of the district from downtown and south Tampa by an elevated highway and toll road–the once-vibrant community gradually emptied of residents and businesses. Stalwarts like the Columbia Restaurant continued, but Ybor grew to resemble a ghost town mostly until a new form of life filtered in.
Collectively, we're Latins. Ybor City Latins. West Tampa Latins. The Latin Community. We were here first. That's the deal. Newer immigrants–Dominicans, Mexicans, South and Central Americans–are arriving here daily, making Tampa one of the most diverse cities in the United States.
By 1939, Tampa’s cigar industry was clearly in trouble. Between 1929 and 1939, 17 factories closed, and Tampa’s cigar manufacturers employed about 5,000 fewer people than they did ten years earlier. A 1939 Tampa Times article cited “less than 20 plants which could be called ‘major.’” But in 1935, none of that mattered. In 1935, what mattered was the Cigar Industry Golden Jubilee. Over four days, the citizens of Tampa were invited to revere the industry that made the town famous.
Sometimes, you can smell bread baking. Long ago, when the streets of Ybor City bustled, and Cuban, Italian, and Spanish immigrants filled Ybor City’s wood-framed front porches, the Ferlita Bakery baked 35,000 loaves of Cuban bread weekly, delivering what has become Tampa’s signature bread to homes throughout the neighborhood. Today, Florida State Park ranger Alex Kinder pours ready-made bread mixes into an electric bread maker to fill the historic building with the smell of baking bread. The sweet aroma takes visitors to the Ybor City State Park back in time.
He arrived in America with his father, Vincent, and two brothers in 1886. He was still experiencing the pain of losing his mother, Sarah, the year before. His father wanted to start a new life with his sons, and America was the place to do that. They first arrived in New York but soon after that settled in Tampa, knowing there were many jobs to find.
“Now is the time to make a decision.” Saying it, I surprise even myself. “The M. Fernandez Factory was called out yesterday, and the workers have joined the picket line. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that Castange Ficcarrotta and Angelo Albano–two Italian anarchists–were found hanged this morning across the river in Tampa. I wait for this to sink in, and the workers, quietly setting up for a day of rolling or still shuffling into the galleria, all come to a stop. There is no collective sigh, no gasp, just their eyes watching me on the stand, and I can feel them staring; I can feel them beginning to shoulder the weight of what I have just told them. This strike has dragged on since June, the slow Florida summer doing little to alleviate the pent-up tensions. It’s all over the New York papers, too. The New York Times ran a story on Tampa’s “necktie party,” but I can’t bear to tell them that.
In 1887- 188, Tampa experienced the worst of the Yellow Fever epidemic!
Death is not always gentle or timely. As you visit Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa's c.1850 public burying ground at Morgan and Harrison Streets, it is a jarring fact that many of the early Tampans interred in that peaceful spot died in violent and painful conditions, and many at a young age. Most of Tampa's founding families lost members in that fashion.
In 1886, Tampa was a city in transition. A small outpost on the west coast of Florida, Tampa was a community of less than 800 residents in 1880. The arrival of Henry Plant’s South Florida Railway and the establishment of the cigar industry transformed Tampa into an ethnically diverse urban center in the New South. By 1900, over 5,000 people called Tampa home.
Question: A “zarzuela” is (a) a royal palace in Spain, (b) a briar bush, (c) a Spanish operetta, (d) a seafood concoction, or (e) a Spanish word guaranteed to throw non-Spanish speaking people for a loop? Answer: All the above!