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.
Francisco Ferlita, an Italian immigrant born in Santo Stephano, Sicily, opened La Joven Francesca bakery on this spot in 1896. The Sicilian borrowed the name from a famous bakery in Cuba. It was a name with which Ybor City’s majority Cuban and Spanish residents could identify. At the turn of the century, Ybor City quickly grew into one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the American South. In fact, by 1900, Ybor City, known as the “Cigar Capitol of the World,” was home to over 5,000 Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants who worked to produce millions of hand-rolled cigars annually. In 1919, the number of hand-rolled cigars in Ybor City crested at 410 million.
Hundreds of small businesses sprouted to support the booming ethnic neighborhood, located just 2 miles northeast of downtown Tampa. Groceries, Five-and-dimes, cafés, and hardware stores settled next to massive cigar factories and wood-framed bungalows to make Ybor City and its main thoroughfare, 7th Avenue, into a vibrant commercial and residential district. Ybor City became known as “Little Havana” or “The Latin Quarter,” and its residents stamped a unique identity on Tampa, sharing their language, customs, and traditional foods with the Anglo population of Tampa.
Immigrants also founded several mutual aid societies and fraternal organizations offering a broad scope of social and cultural services. The clubs served an important social function within the community, hosting dances, political meetings, dramatic theater, and citizenship classes, among other cultural events. Most importantly, Ybor City’s mutual aid societies provided extensive medical benefits for dues-paying members. Several ethnic organizations operated hospitals and clinics with entire surgical and nursing staffs. Historians believe the pioneering medical services offered by Ybor City’s ethnic mutual aid societies represent the beginning of today’s HMO programs.
It was within this burgeoning, ethnically diverse locale that Francisco Ferlita opened La Joven Francesca on the corner of 19th Street and 9th Avenue, just two blocks from the grand columns of La Unione Italiana, the Italian American fraternal society, in the heart of the Sicilian section of Ybor City. The Sicilian baker and his family lived directly across the street from the bakery, quickly becoming one of Ybor’s most popular businesses, a neighborhood cornerstone.
In 1922, tragedy struck. One of the most destructive fires ever to hit the community consumed dozens of blocks, claiming the wood-framed La Joven Francesca in its wake. While the fire raged, Francisco ran into the burning building to close the iron door of his brick oven while the building that surrounded it burned to the ground. With only his brick oven left standing, Ferlita constructed a second oven and rebuilt his bakery around it. The new blond-brick building was completed in 1923 and re-named the Broadway Bakery. Francisco died in 1931, passing the business on to his wife and five sons-Stephen, Joseph, Tony, John, and Angelo. Together, they operated the Broadway Bakery until the 1970s.
After World War II, Ybor City entered an era of economic decline. Many of Ybor City’s second-generation Cubans, Italians, and Spaniards began to move away from the “Latin” barrio to other parts of Tampa, seeking the suburban landscapes and middle-class lifestyle of the American post-war era. City of Tampa officials proposed a federally funded Urban Renewal project for Ybor City in 1965. Hundreds of American cities throughout the 1950s and 1960s participated in Urban Renewal projects administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Tampa’s Ybor City was no exception. The massive public works project called for the clearance of hundreds of structures. Many of Ybor City’s historic homes and businesses fell victim to the “Federal Bulldozer.” By 1973, in the aftermath of suburban flight and the devastating impact of Urban Renewal, the Broadway Bakery was in financial trouble. The Bakery was inside the Urban Renewal Project Area, a 50-acre chunk of Ybor City, scheduled for “slum clearance.” Tampa’s Urban Renewal Agency, charged with executing the Urban Renewal Plan, acquired The Broadway Bakery through the power of eminent domain. In 1973, after almost 90 years as a family-owned business, the City of Tampa became the new owner of the Broadway Bakery.
In the wake of Urban Renewal, local preservationists, historians, and business leaders looked to save what was left of Ybor City’s historic structures. By 1975, state, county, and local government representatives began to look for a way to tell Ybor City’s unique multicultural story. In 1976, the State of Florida purchased the .9-acre parcel of land between 18th and 19th streets, which included the Broadway Bakery and enough land to develop a small park adjacent to the building. Funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, administered by the State of Florida, and developed by the local community, the project exhibited “unusual cooperation” between federal, state, and local governments. HUD provided $82,000.00 in grants while the City of Tampa allocated Urban Renewal funds to restore the building. The City of Tampa held a groundbreaking in June of 1977, and on Friday, September 12, 1980, the Ybor City State Museum opened its doors to the public, culminating over six years of planning.
Today’s Ybor City landscape had changed considerably since 1896, when Francisco Ferlita opened La Joven Francesca. The original immigrants are gone; the stately mutual aid societies are rented for weddings instead of political rallies or Spanish operas. In 1990, Ybor City was named a National Historic Landmark District, one of only three such designations in Florida. The ovens at the back of The Broadway Bakery have cooled. But on any day of the week, visitors to the Ybor City State Museum can see the faces of Ybor City’s founding generation on the walls of the old bakery. They can peer into the bakery’s original brick ovens and imagine- if only for a moment–the smell of bread baking.
The Ybor City Museum State Park is located at 1818 E. 9th Ave., Tampa, FL 33605
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JULY/AUGUST 2007
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.
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
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