When examining the history of the South these days, one of the first things noted is how diverse the South really is, that a wide array of ethnic groups actually contributed to the formation of the communities we now know and love across the American South. Our South at one time was a frontier, a place where people could form new starts no matter where they came from.
Ybor City (pronounced “EE-bore” City) began as such a place. In the 1880’s, when the South was still recovering from the Civil War but the state of Florida was quite young, cigar makers brought Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants to Ybor City to work in their cigar factories. This action was crucial: Havana, Cuba, was the leading city in terms of culture and manufacturing in the Caribbean, and although many in Europe were suffering from poor economies, the New World offered new hope. Prior to this time, immigrants more commonly went to New York or Chicago for the prospects of better life via industrial jobs, but the vision of Ybor City was unique: It became a multi-ethnic community (though united by Catholicism), a rarity for its time.
The wealth of Ybor grew quickly: the cigar trade catered to the growth of affluence in the United States, and by the turn of the century Florida was growing too. Mutual-Aid societies, commonplace to ethnic neighborhoods, were in Ybor affairs of splendid architecture, and restaurants and bars sprouted up around the neighborhood, including Columbia, a Spanish restaurant which opened its doors in 1905.
Still in business today, Columbia has long been considered one of Florida’s finest, oldest, and largest of restaurants and one of the best Spanish restaurants in the entire nation. Today Columbia has other outposts throughout the Tampa Bay area and also a restaurant in Saint Augustine, but the original Ybor location remains iconic for its history and unique architecture.
Ybor however did not see its golden age last forever: the Great Depression affected all Americans, and understandably high-end goods like hand-rolled cigars were some of the first things cut out of dwindling budgets. The cigar factories that dominated the Ybor economy had to lay off workers and many whole factories went out of business. The neighborhood—once vital and lively—saw families move away in search of work elsewhere.
After World War II, when much of America was experiencing a growth of its economy, Ybor was still in decline. The neighborhood was old, jobs were scarce and perhaps worst of all, the Veterans’ Administration home-buyer loans for servicemen were only valid on newly-built homes, so the many vacant ones of Ybor were excluded from the program. There was little incentive therefore for vets to settle in Ybor, despite the number of homes on the market and the attractive, nearly tropical, climate.
Faced with a neighborhood just north of urban Tampa in steadfast decline, in the later 1950’s the federal government attempted to spur renewal in Ybor by demolishing older houses and commercial buildings and building anew—a vastly different approach than how urban renewal is done today with its emphasis on retaining historic properties and their unique benefits to the local landscape. Thankfully, in retrospect, the program in Ybor did not reach Seventh Avenue, the heart of the community, and mostly only took out blocks of older, less-valued homes.
Still, the blocks it cleared out stood vacant for literally decades and only in recent years have seen redevelopment, with condo and apartment buildings being built on them. The arrival of the Interstate Highway System in the form of I-4 (coming west from Orlando) and I-275 (an extension of I-75 coming south from northern Florida) brought superb transportation to the area—but also cut directly through some of the remaining historic residential neighborhoods.
By the 1980’s, however, the tide was turning: Ybor still had interesting historic commercial properties—ones that escaped being torn down and were for a long time too expensive for most buyers—now going for dirt-cheap prices. Artists and businessmen with an eye for creative properties started to buy these properties and restore them, moving studios, antique shops, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs into the neighborhood. The combination of the history of Seventh Avenue and its charming buildings, coupled with the fact that cleared lots were present for new development, meant that Ybor offered something few communities in a state of such transition can: a combination of attractive historic properties and room to build new—and large.
As this growth continued through the 1990’s and the 2000’s, the City of Tampa wisely built a new parking garage to provide ample parking for those visiting Ybor—street parking in areas betrayed the fact Ybor was built before the automobile and had streets best used for walking. The City of Tampa also helped ensure the old Centro Español social club was converted into the Centro Ybor, a multi-purpose entertainment destination, including family-friendly attractions such as a movie theatre, in addition to the bars and nightclubs. Part of Ybor’s appeal is that it does not cater to tourists or party-minded college kids but to everyone.
Retaining the history of Ybor extends beyond the façadism of keeping a few historic buildings intact or a few signs up, left over from the cigar factories: there are neighborhood ambassadors, older folks who have lived in Ybor for decades, often third-generation or older. They know the history and are a living extension of it, wandering down Seventh Ave chatting with visitors. There is also a state museum in the neighborhood dedicated to its legacy, and even when buildings have been repurposed, there has been a clear effort made to retain the elements that are most telling of their original purpose.
The influence of Cubans, Spaniards, and Italians also comes across to this day in a variety of ways. Aside from Columbia, there are other Cuban and Spanish restaurants, and nearly every restaurant or bar that serves food has some variant of a Cuban sandwich. Pizza and other Italian food is also well represented with pizza parlors, like Due Amici, selling not only pizza but classic Italian dishes as well. There are few corporate chains here, vastly outnumbered by family-run, local restaurants. Beer is big, too, with local Cigar City Brewing providing some craft brews. The comprehensive feeling is a festive one and grounded well in history with cigars—some still hand-rolled—also for sale at shops along Seventh.
Adaptive reuse of buildings has allowed many downtowns, once neglected in favor of businesses moving to the suburbs, to emerge anew and viable in the South, and in Ybor a great example is the Bernini Restaurant. This classic though often lively Italian restaurant went into the old Bank of Ybor building, keeping not only the original façade but even the original signage which is left lurking behind a hanging sign proclaiming the restaurant itself—a nice tribute to years of local heritage. The interior, however, has been done up in splendid Baroque style and the menu reflects a contemporary Italian-American sense of cuisine.
Another example of a restaurant taking advantage of a historic property is that of The Bricks, a restaurant and bar that went into an old commercial/industrial building. Making good use of the space and keeping the original brick interior walls exposed, this restaurant is known for its cocktails, beer, and different takes on the classic Cuban sandwich.
These two restaurants are far from exceptions but instead part of a general rule of how bars and restaurants have weaved their presence into the historic fabric of Ybor instead of trying to override or rewrite that extant history. The Ritz Ybor is another success story, where a concert and special events venue went into a theatre built in 1917, continuing the original purpose of the structure. Other businesses, such as the Green Iguana Bar and Grill, have done the same, and the collective effort is one of a vibrant community alive at every hour of the day and night, still hard-working like its ancestors who came from afar.
See More of Mike Walker’s Fantastic Photos of Ybor City Here