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.
When Greco was first elected mayor in 1967, Ybor City was indeed in need of a savior. The thriving cigar and immigrant community of the late 1800s and early 1900s was long gone.
Gone were the rows upon rows of shotgun homes. In their place was just empty land covered with sprinkles of demolished wood and brick, resulting from the destruction that Urban Renewal and the construction of I-4 wrought upon the district.
Gone was the beautiful architecture, replaced with crumbling and dilapidated buildings that had been neglected since their residents left Ybor City due to the dwindling cigar industry and the lure of the suburbs.
Gone were the hundreds of men, women, and children who once hustled down 7th Avenue. Gone were the cars that once lined the main thoroughfare. It is often said that a man could lie in the middle of the road and not worry about being hit by a passing car.
Gone were the cafés boiling café con leche, the restaurants preparing roast pork, and the street vendors selling crab cakes.
Gone were the streetcars rumbling down the brick streets. Gone were the domino players and the clickity-clack of their game pieces being slammed onto a table. Instead, silence rang throughout Ybor City.
Ybor City was a ghost town, and some wondered if it would ever come to life again.
By the late 1960s, a group of Ybor City leaders developed a plan to save the one-time thriving Latin district–bullfighting.
The men behind the bullfighting venture were Mayor Greco; Jim Walter, owner of a home-building corporation that was one of the city's most financially successful businesses; Cesar Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia Restaurant; and Ybor City optometrist Henry Fernandez. Gonzmart, Fernandez, and Walter told Greco that if he could get the city and state to approve the project, they could get the funding.
The entire project would cost $15 million, $5 million of which would be spent on the bullfighting ring. A wall would be built around Ybor City–7th Avenue to the south, the expressway to the north, 22nd Street to the east, and 17th Street to the west.
Besides a bloodless bullfighting ring, the walled city would include a $2.5 million, 120-room Spanish-style castle hotel that would be erected across the street from the Columbia Restaurant, covering a two-block area from 21st Street to 22nd Street from Seventh Avenue to Ninth Avenue, 47 establishments including restaurants, shops and cafes, and an outdoor market with dancers, singers, strolling guitarists, vendors and artists would represent every immigrant population that once made Ybor City their home.
Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971, so the city planned to finish the walled city in Ybor to coincide and compete with Orlando's new tourist attraction.
The walled city would be visible from I-4, so Greco, Gonzmart, Walter, and Fernandez thought that tourists flocking to Orlando would see it and pull over to check it out. In time, they believed that everyone visiting Disney would also visit Ybor City, and they projected that 2.5 million tourists would spend $50 million in the walled city annually.
There was one problem, though–bullfighting was illegal in Florida at the time, even "bloodless" bullfighting in which the matador achieves victory by sticking a piece of Velcro between the bull's shoulder blades rather than stabbing him to death. Gonzmart and Greco traveled to Tallahassee to change the law.
The handsome Gonzmart, dressed in full matador attire, is said to have walked throughout the state house and sweet-talked the legislation in Tallahassee, even kissing the head of every secretary he saw. The suave Greco spoke eloquently about the need to save Ybor City. The Legislature was no match for the charming duo of Gonzmart and Greco, and the State legislature voted to legalize bloodless bullfights.
The second component of Ybor City's planned revitalization process was luring Hillsborough Community College to the district.
In 1968, the State of Florida and Hillsborough County identified a need for a community college. Greco immediately saw Ybor City as a perfect fit. The city was flush with land it had acquired during Urban Renewal, and private investment needed to catch up. Ultimately, Greco offered H.C.C 33 acres of recently cleared Urban Renewal land.
Ybor City's current and former residents got behind the idea, seeing it to reinvigorate the community. Over 17,000 people signed a petition stating their support for building a community college in Ybor City. The city then prepared a 28-page report analyzing why Ybor City was the best fit for the campus, specifically stating that it was accessible to the interstate, close to the center of the population, and had vacant land rather than land that still had to be cleared.
Bob Bondi, a former Ybor City resident, sat on the School Board and argued convincingly that Ybor City was the best site for the proposed campus. State Senator Louis de la Parte, also a native of Ybor City, provided them with political support on the state level. Together with Greco, these well-connected sons of Ybor City extolled the benefits that a community college could bring to the old neighborhood. They envisioned a Latin motif, which would fit seamlessly with the walled city project.
"It could change the whole complexion of the Ybor City area. It would gain worldwide exposure," Greco said to the Legislature, explaining that it would be the only community college in the nation to be designed uniquely.
Unfortunately, Greco's dreams for Ybor City soon turned into a nightmare.
In February 1971, a group unaffiliated with Ybor City's bullfighting project staged a bloodless bullfight in Bradenton, Fl., a community about 50 miles south of Tampa. The bull charged the crowd rather than the matador. Gonzmart later stated that the bull was "untested," which led to the debacle. While no spectators were hurt, the bull had to be shot by police officers on the scene. In May 1971, the state Legislature, feeling pressure from the Humane Society, repealed the bullfighting law, ending the walled city project.
The HCC project was also falling apart. The first president of HCC, Dr. William Graham, overseeing the construction of the college's first main campus in the county, was firmly against a Ybor City campus and refused to be swayed by the many politicos in the corner of Ybor City. He favored building the main campus on Dale Mabry Highway, located on the outskirts of downtown Tampa, because the land was cheaper and more abundant, came with better infrastructure, and was geographically closer to those residents with college aspirations.
In the end, Graham won the battle of wills. While there was support for a Ybor City campus, Dale Mabry was a more practical choice. The salesmanship of the city, school board, and state did enable Ybor City to win a minor battle, though. The community college agreed to build a "branch campus" in Ybor City.
The campus, which broke ground in late 1973, was small but provided Ybor City with the anchor it needed to begin its restoration process. It was the first time in decades that buildings were erected in Ybor City rather than torn down, and the students who studied on campus were the first rush of new life the district had experienced since the cigar industry faded away. Over the next few decades, Ybor City would undergo many changes, becoming known as an arts district, a bar district, and a shopping district. However, the HCC campus provided the initial spark.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JULY/AUGUST 2009
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Paul Guzzo is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. He found the lost segregation-era all-black Zion Cemetery. His unique beat also includes the local film industry, Tampa history, professional wrestling, and the odd and unique people who make up this area. Guzzo has been a journalist in Tampa since 1999, including a senior writer for Cigar City Magazine and Tampa Mafia Magazine. In his younger years, he was an independent filmmaker best known for an award-winning documentary on Charlie Wall, Tampa’s first crime lord.
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