tampa’s ybor city: from cigar capital to social hot spot

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My travels in Tampa led me to the much talked about Ybor City Historic District. Here, the main street of Seventh Avenue is reminiscent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street in its lively night life and flowing alcohol. The canvas to the Ybor painting is the prevalence of extant architecturally interesting late nineteenth century structures, most formerly used in cigar manufacturing, that have since been renovated to suit the needs of the twenty-first century, and of Ybor City’s revitalized social scene.

Ybor City, which is located northeast of downtown Tampa and is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark District, would not have existed had it not been for three Spanish men: Gutierrez [from Spain], Ybor [from Cuba], and Haya [from New York], who in the nineteenth century brought the cigar industry to the area, sowing the seeds of what would become known as the cigar capital of the world.

Originally from Spain, Ybor, who had owned his own cigar factory in Havana, moved his operations to Key West due to the 1868 Cuban Revolution. Haya was a cigar factory owner from New York. During a visit to Key West in 1884, Gutierrez convinced Ybor and Haya to travel to the small town of Tampa [with a population at the time of less than 5000] to see if there was any potential to set up cigar manufacturing in the area. The recent addition of a railway into Tampa and the proper climate, along with the important port access made it a perfect location to make and distribute cigars.

The following year both Haya and Ybor decided to build cigar factories in the area. Ybor purchased forty acres of land and began to construct a new cigar factory. In 1886 Ybor began developing a company town “with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners.”

One key feature in Ybor City was the many ethnic social clubs [Cuban, Spanish, Italian, Sicilian, German, Romanian, etc.], the buildings of which can still be seen today. They provided an important social safety net [healthcare, etc.] at a time when no such programs existed. These “mutual aid societies” provided a home base for each ethnic group and with their bars, cantinas, theatres and ballrooms, a social environment within which new immigrants could feel safe, at home and could live a good life.

In the 1960s Ybor City was split apart by an urban renewal project. Seventy acres of the old city were leveled, including several hundred houses, one mutual aid society building, and a fire station. An interstate highway took up part of the leveled ground. Years later, it prompted a number of civic organizations to band together to preserve what remained of the city’s historic buildings and ethnic heritage, which resulted in its current status as an historic district.

Today, when you wander the streets of Ybor City and its many bars and restaurants, if you close your eyes for a moment, you can imagine what it must have been like at the turn of the century: a thriving and multicultural business community, with the common goal of making cigars for the world.

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