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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
I knew the workers were anxiously awaiting my arrival to share with them the news in today’s morning Tampa Tribune. I would have to delay drinking my first cup of café con leche until after I read about yesterday’s daring bank robbery attempt. “Read Señor, please read and tell us what happened,” one voice yelled.
Maria Messina Greco delivered over 12,000 babies during her career as a midwife. She graduated from the University of Palermo, Italy, where she attained a degree in midwifery. She came to Tampa in 1906 as one of the first university-trained midwives in the area. She delivered babies throughout Tampa until retiring in the late 1930s.
He was a simple man who owned a bicycle shop in Ybor City, which doubled as a makeshift museum. He spent his time and money decorating its walls with old photographs and documents from the early days of Ybor City. His father, Antonio del Rio, arrived with Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1886 and helped build this cigar town, so Emilio had many memories.
AN INCIDENT DURING THE CIGAR WORKERS STRIKE OF 1901:AN EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR OF LUIS BARCIA GUILABERT
Thus begins one of the most startling and fascinating memoirs I have ever encountered. I did not know the man or even heard of him, but his words were so hot and piercing that I could not put the manuscript down. He wrote in Castilian and his son-in-law had them translated into English. The English are somewhat strained, so I procured a copy of the original Castilian memoir from Barcia's grandson, John Diaz, Jr. In that typed copy, many of the letters were fused into smudges that were difficult to read. But the task was well worth the effort, for, by the turn of the century, Tampa emerged almost unrecognizable from the ashes of a cigar industry bound in strikes and turmoil. In it, we glimpse a century of society's evolution in a few pages.
I awoke early on this fourth day of April 1930 to an unusually cold day. My oil heater did little to keep the chill out of the wooden boarding house I called home. I looked down from my second-story window to the activity on the street below.
Olives have been around for thousands of years. If you are a fan of these tiny green fruits, you may not know that some of Spain’s best olives were bottled in Tampa!
In the factories, social clubs, and neighborhoods of Ybor City, several distinct ethnic groups evolved into a "Latin" community. Several factors aided this slow but eventual transition.
In 1886, the same year Ybor City was founded, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor. These two events are more closely linked than might appear at first glance. Between 1880 and 1890, 5.2 million immigrants entered the U.S., seeking the freedom and opportunity that the Lady in the Harbor offered. Some of these early immigrants were destined for Ybor City, and over the decades between the neighborhood's founding and 1921 (when the great tide of immigration finally began to ebb), many more came to live and work in the town that Vicente Martinez Ybor–himself an immigrant–built. This is their story, and it is up to them to say How We Got Here.
On any given day, you could find him riding his small scooter up and down the streets of Ybor City. You could not resist his deviled crabs–they were the best!