Imagine visiting the neighborhood you grew up in, and it's not there! Not one single house, grocery store, bakery, or church–everything gone! In a panic, you rush to your home, and then your grandparents' house and all you find are empty lots full of sand and rocks. Your mind races back to a time of big family dinners, especially around the holidays. You think of the playground where you and your friends played stickball and Bernardo's Grocery Store and Garage, where you would hang out, drink Coke, and chew on penny bubble gum. The city you remember no longer exists. If you grew up in Roberts City, then this is your story.
To help understand what happened, let's go back to when Roberts City began. In Armando Mendez’s book Cuidad de Cigars: West Tampa, we learn:
In 1893 West Tampa business leaders were busy seeking new manufacturers to entice to the area. In January 1893, George Benjamin and Phillip Collins lured brothers Julius and Ernest Ellinger to move their operations from Key West to West Tampa. The Ellinger Company was the second largest manufacturer of Havana cigars in the United States, and it took an offer of sixty lots building lots and $5,000 cash for Collins and Benjamin to persuade the Ellingers to move.
The Ellingers built their factory–the first brick building in West Tampa–on the corner of Green Street and Garcia Avenue. They then constructed small cottages near the factory for over 400 cigar workers, and it became known as "Ellinger City," or, as the residents called it, El Barrio de Elinche. It was bordered by the Hillsborough River on the north and east, North Boulevard on the west, and Cass Street on the south.
Ellinger & Co. operated as a cigar-producing factory but fell on hard times after the death of Julius Ellinger in 1902. After merging with another company, its operations moved to Ybor City. The original brick building sat empty until 1909 when the firm of J. W. Roberts & Son opened their cigar factory. Soon after that, residents began calling their neighborhood. "Roberts City". Around that time, the Garcia Avenue Bridge was built, providing quick access across the Hillsborough River.
In his book Bridging the Gap, Robert W. Saunders, Sr, talks about growing up in Roberts City. "My family had neighbors from various ethnic groups, including Cuban and Italian, as well as Black and Caucasian families. Local children played together, ate in each other's homes, fought, and protected each other. On the other hand, Florida's segregation laws and traditions did keep us from attending the same schools, eating in the same restaurants, and even drinking from the same water fountains."
As the city grew, numerous businesses opened to support the needs of its residents. They included S. Conte Grocery Store, where you could buy groceries for the week, and La Popular Bakery, where you could purchase fresh baked Cuban bread–hot out of the oven. Then there was Latteri's Poultry Market, where customers could stop in to pick out a plump, live chicken for that evening's dinner and hand it to the butcher to take for a walk! This was the day-to-day life in this small community.
The icon business of the city was the Buena Vista Hotel which stood tall on the southeast corner of LaSalle Street and Garcia Avenue. This beautiful hotel was the city's focal point, complete with a swimming pool and health club used by many cigar workers after a long, hard day. The hotel also had an outdoor patio where dances were held. A boxing gym also drew crowds depending on what famous boxer was working out then. Professional fighters like Chino Alvarez, Carl (Red) Guggino, Tony Lopez "Half-Pint," Joe Ficarotta, Max Baer, or the Leto brothers (Tony and Jimmy) could be seen getting ready for their next bout. An outdoor boxing ring was also located at Market and LaSalle Streets. This ring attracted local amateur boxers who could make good money going a few rounds with one another. Boxing was a primary form of entertainment in Roberts City, and fights were a popular pastime.
So what happened to Roberts City? Why does it not exist any longer? Simply put, it was destroyed! Not by fire or a natural disaster but by something far worse–Urban Renewal. This ugly monster began its destruction of Roberts City in the early 1960s.
Large areas of Tampa were being wiped clean of homes and businesses to make way for what was called at the time "progress." Roberts City became one of its victims. Men toting paint cans used paintbrushes to place a death mark on the outside walls. URX stood for "Urban Renewal Removal." The newly built Interstate 275 cut through the city. Unfortunately, both projects occurred with the blessings of many.
The Bernardos were one of Roberts City's well-known families. Gilbert Bernardo grew up playing with the other kids in his neighborhood and enjoyed hanging out at his family's store. His grandparents, Ramón and Emilia Bernardo, had moved to Roberts City in the early 1900s from Asturias, Spain. Gilbert's father, Ramón, was one of their seven children. Gilbert was so affected by what happened to his neighborhood due to urban renewal that he had to express himself in writing. The following excerpt is full of the emotion he experienced at the time:
First, the houses were bought up, and families moved out. With no homes and no people, there was no one to support the neighborhood businesses. So, for the most part, the companies failed…I remember the ghost town appearance of the neighborhood; no people, but dogs and cats in packs, as pets had been abandoned. Animal Control quickly rounded up the dogs but did nothing about the cats. I recall cats frantically trying to scale power poles to catch a bird that had lighted on the wire. Such was the hunger. I would go across the river, get buckets of fish heads from the fish market, and dump them in the fields. Cats would rush from all over, grab a fish head, and race to some far corner to devour their prize. Slowly the cats, too, disappeared. Then all was silent.
The memory of Roberts City lives on in the minds and hearts of those who once lived in this thriving city by the river. One such person is George "Yoye" Lopez. Lopez has spent much time at his home in Seffner, documenting growing up in Roberts City. I had read about George's passion for preserving the memory of Robert's City in an old Tampa Tribune article. It spoke of the reunions George and a group of friends from Roberts City would hold to reminisce about their neighborhood. The article, written in 1968, was about their third annual reunion with 1,500 people showing up at the American Legion Hall at Macfarlane Park. These large reunions have ceased, but George and his buddies still get together at El Gallo de Oro Restaurant every Monday and Friday to stay in touch and have café con leche. I knew I had to contact George to learn more about Roberts City.
I found George's number and called him. We spent much time talking over the telephone that day, with George speaking about the neighborhood he remembered with passion and love. We set up a meeting the following Monday morning at El Gallo to meet and talk. I arrived at 10:30 a.m., and the place was crowded, with all the tables occupied. I looked around, wondering how I would find George since I didn't know what he looked like. I saw a large table of six men and thought this might be George's friends whom he called "The Roberts City Boys." I walked over and asked if they knew George Lopez. One said, "Yeah, we know George–why are you looking for him?" I introduced myself and told them I was meeting George to talk about Roberts City.
One of them pointed to the chair at the corner of the table and said, "George is next door having a haircut; sit down right there in that seat–that's where George sits." With that, they continued with the conversation I had interrupted. "You don't know what you are talking about," one said to another across the table. "Oh, I don't know what I'm talking about, huh? What do you know? Nothing–absolutely nothing", he quipped back. This banter continued back and forth between them, and when it subsided a bit, one said, "Can I buy you a cup of café con leche?" "Yes, thank you, that would be nice," I said. Then the taunting and teasing continued at the table.
As I sat there drinking my cup of hot coffee, I realized that these "Roberts City Boys" had been around each other since they were youngsters, so picking on one another was something they had been doing for years. I could picture them playing in a makeshift baseball field in Roberts City with one yelling, "Bet you can't hit this curve ball…" "Oh yeah? Just shut up and throw the darn ball!"
When George finally arrived around 11 a.m., "the boys" got up to move to their table outside. I later discovered they move to the outside table because that's when the restaurant's lunch crowd starts arriving and, by that time, they are finished with their café con leche and Cuban bread. George and I talked for a bit outside, but we decided a quiet meeting at his home later that next week would be better. That way, he could show me all the information he had collected about Roberts City. I said goodbye to the guys, and a couple of them waved, but the others were too focused on the new battle that had begun. As I walked away, I realized that these old friends have genuine respect and love for one another, and they show it with their teasing.
I arrived at George's home in the early afternoon. He and his wife live in a beautiful wooded area in Seffner, just outside of Tampa. George invited me in and directed me to the kitchen table. We spoke awhile, and then, with his baseball cap tipped backward, he leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, and said, "Before we talk further, I want you to read this." He handed me ten pages of handwritten notes that were titled, Robert City 4/1/05. Then he got up and entered the other room, leaving me alone. So, I was left with an assigned task–which I gladly accepted–and began to read.
My name is George Lopez. I was born in Robert City in 1928–806 Laurel St., one block west of the La Popular Bakery. There were 12 in my family; 2 died before I was born. My father's name was Antonio Lopez (cigar maker), born in Cuba. Mother was born in Key West, Guillermina Delgado (housewife)…
He wrote about the mixture of immigrant families who came to the United States looking for a better way of life and settled in Roberts City. As I read, I was amazed by how much George remembered. He had listed families who lived in his neighborhood–Bernardo, Conte, Dario, Darrigo, Salinero, Cardosa, Papia, Flores, Fonte, Castellano, Contreras, Cardinale, Espinola, Matassini, Sanchez, and Carbajal. I recognized many of the names of "the boys" he had introduced me to at El Gallo de Oro. George wrote about all the good memories and the active community in Roberts City. His descriptions took me on a mental journey to this part of Tampa that I knew little about.
When I finished reading, George returned to the room and said, "Alright, now you read what I had to say, and you know about Roberts City." He then pulled out a sheet of paper on which he had drawn a makeshift map. Lines intersected one another, showing the names of streets: Short Main, Main, Green, Laurel, LaSalle, Nassau, Arch, Grace, Cypress, Cass, and Garcia Avenue. A corresponding list of stores, cafés, service stations, barbershops, cigar factories, and other businesses were numbered, indicating their location on the map. George explained that the landscape is significantly different today, with most streets still there but no longer running as far as they once did.
Where Roberts City once stood are Blake High School, Presbyterian Village, Tampa Preparatory School, and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The Boys and Girls Club was recently built on the corner of North Boulevard and Arch Street. George told me that the city is working on putting a plaque at this location to honor Roberts City.
George next pulled out an old picture album filled with photographs of men in their World War II uniforms. He has collected several pictures of men from Roberts City who served their country bravely. As he turned each page, he would tell me a little bit of history about each serviceman–his name, where he lived in Roberts City, what his parents did for a living, or some story he remembered. George later told me two guys didn't return home–Nick Matassini and Oscar Ramos.
Time passed quickly as George shared his stories with me, but it was time to head back to Tampa before the traffic got bad. I thanked George for spending the afternoon with me, and we agreed we would stay in touch. Before I left, George handed me a copy of his writing and said he wanted me to keep it. I knew I wasn't the first to receive a copy and surely would not be the last. George's mission has always been to educate as many people as possible about his beloved Roberts City.
On the drive home from Seffner, I decided to detour through where the city once stood. I drove down North Boulevard and looked left and right, trying to understand what was once there. I tried to remember how George had drawn the intersecting streets, and I slowed down to read the street signs, trying to imagine how they all ran together. I had driven down this street many times before, but today sadness overcame me. I thought about one of the last questions I asked George. I wanted to know if there was anything left of Roberts City. He paused for a minute, looked down, and then back at me with a soft smile and said, "Only a fire hydrant."
Thanks to George Lopez and Gilbert Bernardo, who provided valuable information and photographs for this article. I also want to thank all the "Roberts City Boys" for all the mornings of café con leche at El Gallo de Oro Restaurant.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MARCH/APRIL 2006
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.
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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