Tag Archives: Ybor City

How serendipity created Tampa’s historic Ybor City

This originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa.

From cigar trade tariffs to fire engine repairs, Vincente Martinez Ybor’s butterfly effect.

We couldn’t have Cuban sandwiches without cigar tariffs. Strange but true, and a testament to the serendipity of history. Chaos theory calls this “the butterfly effect.” Food historians call it “without the tariff and a fire, we’d have to say the Cuban sandwich was invented in Key West.”

Ah, well, you know what they say: Potato ball, papas rellenas…

But back to Ybor and cigars and sandwiches. 

Meet Vincente Martinez Ybor. He’d been born towards the end of the second decade of the 19th century, but not in Cuba — in Valencia, Spain. The Ybors can trace their lineage to the Moorish occupation of Spain’s Iberian peninsula in the eighth century; in the early part of the 19th century they’d fought French invaders. By all accounts, Ybor was an aristocrat — and that’s how he found himself in Cuba. Spain, nearing the end of its colonial period, found itself enmeshed in military skirmishes, and Ybor’s parents wanted their son to have no part in that, so they used their considerable power and wealth to have him stationed in Spanish-owned Cuba as a storeroom clerk. 

Ybor soon found himself enchanted by the cigar industry; he both brokered cigars made by others and had his own operation in place. His business did well; the Tampa Weekly Tribunewrote that “the goods he made with such integrity brought the young manufacturer new customers each week while he retained the patronage of his older friends.”

In 1866, though, the tides started to turn. Spain, facing revolution from Cuban nationalists who resisted the not-so-benevolent dictatorship of Spain, began levying strong taxes on Cuban property and goods — up to 12 percent. Ybor had remained loyal to Spain amidst growing Cuban unrest, but these taxes changed his mindset, and he secretly began supporting the resistance. When evidence mounted that he was sympathetic to the Cuban nationalists and the Spanish government issued a warrant for his arrest — and his assasination — he fled to Key West. 

Two years later, the Ten Years’ War erupted in Cuba, and more Cubans, wishing not to serve the Spanish army, fled to Key West, where they found Ybor waiting — and his business grew sufficiently until 1885, when a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated things would yield Ybor City. First, Henry Plant brought his railroad to Tampa, where trains met with steamers bound for Havana and Key West. Next, cigar workers in Key West went on strike, and after several months, Ybor decided to check out the Tampa area — and several other cigar makers followed. Ybor did maintain a factory in Key West after his exodus to Tampa, but not for long. In the last week of March, 1886, Key West sent its lone steam fire engine to New York City for repairs, which is why, on April 1, the city was unable to extinguish a devastating fire that destoyed Ybor’s factory — and two-thirds of Key West’s business district. Ybor’s new life in his new town — Ybor City — was ensured.

While Key West at one time had 100 cigar factories, by 1910 Ybor City (and the surrounding area) had 150 factories and the Ybor City cigar industry employed more than 10,000 workers.

As Ybor City grew, it attracted a melting pot of immigrants, a sort of Ellis Island of the New South — around this time, Tampa had not quite 40,000 residents, comprised of 14,000 Cubans, 7,500 Spaniards and 1,500 Italians, putting its percentage of foreign-born residents higher than New York City that same eyear — more than half of Tampa’s residents were born on foreign soil.

Speaking of that cultural melting pot, Ybor was not solely a Latin community — Romanians, Jews, Germans and Chinese immigrants found themselves carving out a new life, and each ethnic group — much like in parts of America — had a lasting effect on our community. While it was the Cubans who rolled the cigars, it was the Germans who created the cigar box art; the Italians with salami that may or may not have been Genoan, who contributed to the Cuban sandwich, a delicacy of pork, pickles and, yes, Cuban bread. 

From there, Ybor City grew, influencing world affairs as it helped bring about another Cuban revolution when Jose Marti stayed in Ybor — across the street from CL’s present-day office — and plotted with other Cuban nationalists to gain Cuba its independence. 

The cigar industry allowed Ybor City — and its new Americans — a pleasured existence until the stock market fell. From there, Ybor City’s fortunes changed. Cigars, traded for less-expensive cigarettes during the Depression, no longer fostered the economic opportunity they once did, and so people, seeking work, moved away. After World War II, the Veterans Administration offered returning veterans fantastic terms on mortages for new homes, but not the wooden casitas that lined the city, and so the population changed. With the advent of the Eisenhower Interstate System, I-4 irrevocably altered the city, cutting it in half. And while the mid-20th century saw two Latin mayors, Nick Nuccio and Dick Greco, the same timeframe saw the “Latin Quarter” project start — old buildings were razed to create faux historical appeal on par with New Orleans’ French Quarter — and falter, as those lots remained vacant, victims of funding promised but never delivered.

As heartbreaking as Ybor City’s depressed economic situation was, it allowed for new growth, unforseen by its Cuban visionaries. Creatives could afford what some might call hovels, and so art descended upon this tiny community founded by expats and cigar aficianados. 

There, then, came Ybor’s new era: Theo Wujcik, The Castle, then, later, a re-imagined Centro Ybor, the Honey Pot, the Ybor Arts Colony, Samurai Blue … the evolution of this community continues. Eight years ago, the Church of Scientology (with a history of buying historic buildings on the verge of demolition by neglect) bought Vincente Martinez Ybor’s original cigar factory (in which CL rents space). 

Community evolves. And, like a butterfly flapping its wings, we will not know what unseen effect our actions have on the future.

On September 7, Ybor City celebrates the birth of Vincente Martinez Ybor. 

Happy birthday, sir. 

And thank you. 

Contact Cathy Salustri.

These streets are made for walkin’

A guide to the area’s guided (and self-guided) tours.

People say Florida doesn’t have seasons. That’s simply not true; our seasons may not look like leaves changing color in fall or cheery yellow daffodils announcing spring, but we have seasons. Every fall, shortly after Labor Day, citrus starts to come back into season, temperatures edge back from the high 90s and walking tours resume.

On either side of the bay, such tours abound, and locals and tourists alike fill up the tour spots as quickly as groups make them available. The Tampa Bay History Center is the latest entity to step up; starting next month, the museum will offer walking tours of Ybor City.

“Tampa’s maturing as a tourist destination, and Ybor City and Tampa’s historic neighborhoods are getting a lot more attention than they used to,” says Manny Leto, director of marketing for the History Center. “I think people are curious about Tampa’s history now in a way they haven’t been. As people start to move into the historic neighborhoods, I think that they are then curious about their community’s history.”

Emily Elwyn, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, worked as a tour guide in Atlanta before moving to St. Pete. She started giving tours of her adopted home town about eight years ago.

“St. Petersburg has become a destination,” says Elwyn. “People appreciate a city up close, and you can really experience it up close when you’re walking through it. When tourists come, they want to talk to someone who lives in the city. It connects people with the place they’re visiting.”

SPP runs a different tour each week and recently partnered with the Gulfport Historical Society to add a tour there. The tours often sell out, which prompted the St. Pete group to raise its prices for non-members from $5 to $10. Tampa Bay History Center will charge $20 for its tours; they, too, have sold out previous tours, often within hours of making them available on their Facebook page.

“There’s a demand for it,” Leto says. “People know we have a reputation for quality and accuracy. Adding walking tours to that makes a lot of sense.”

Walking tours offer tourists and locals an alternative — or an add-on — to drinks and dinner.

“You want the bars, you want the nightlife, but that shouldn’t overshadow the history and the architecture,” Leto says. “That’s why people want to be there.”


Downtown St. Petersburg Tour Tour historic downtown St. Pete and learn about the Fountain of Youth (yes, every Florida city has one), the history of the Vinoy and the story behind the most ornate bathrooms in town. Tourgoers also learn about St. Pete’s architectural achievements, like the Snell Arcade and the open-air post office. First Saturday of every month; meet at the entrance to the Saturday Morning Market, 1st St. S. and 1st Ave. S. October 1, 10 a.m. $10; free for members. stpetepreservation.org.

Roser Park Self-Guided Tour This stroll through St. Petersburg’s first historic district takes you along Booker Creek from 4th St. S. to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St. S. and up Roser Park’s hilly brick streets. The tour, organized by longtime resident Ron Motyka and referred to as the Outdoor History Museum, comprises 28 plaques, covering everything from architecture to the Tocobaga Indians to Charles Roser, who developed the neighborhood in the early 1900s and (legend has it) had a hand in the invention of the fig newton. Find a map at historicroserpark.org/outdoor-museum.

St. Petersburg Waterfront Tour Home to one of the longest waterfront park systems in the United States, St. Pete has a waterfront that’s the envy of many other cities. Learn how city planners created this unique urban amenity on a tour that pokes through the past and also discusses how the city tries to get new buildings to embrace good design. Second Saturday of the month; meet at the entrance to the Saturday Morning Market, 1st St. S. and 1st Ave. S. October 8, 10 a.m. $10; free for members. stpetepreservation.org.

Self-Guided tours St. Petersburg Preservation will also release a self-guided tour pamphlet in print and digital formats. Join them for their launch party Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 2nd Ave.

Mural tour St. Petersburg
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Walking Mural Tour A tour of almost 40 murals in St. Pete’s Central Arts District, including some created for the 2015 and 2016 SHINE mural festivals. Guides include artists who painted the murals, providing tourgoers with intimate insight into the process of design and execution. Every Saturday morning. Meet at Florida Craft Art, 501 Central Ave., St. Pete. 10 a.m. $19. 727-821-7391. floridacraftart.org.

Westward Ho to Historic Kenwood Tour Bungalows everywhere! This tour highlights some of Kenwood’s most fascinating homes. Tourgoers get to go inside a restored bungalow and, after the tour, linger on the front deck of the Craftsman House, the neighborhood’s original model home, built in the “airplane bungalow” style (so named because the small, multi-windowed second floor kinda resembles a cockpit). Fourth Saturday of every month; meet at the Craftsman House Gallery, 2955 Central Ave, St. Pete. October 22, 10 a.m. $10; free for members. stpetepreservation.org.


Downtown Dunedin Walking Tour Discover Dunedin’s early history and learn about its historic structures, including a home from the 1870s, the oldest structure in Dunedin, the first theater, the first icehouse and the first newspaper. The tour guide also tells stories that reveal the history of the town. Advance reservations requested. Meets at the Dunedin Museum, 349 Main St. October through May on the third Friday of the month, 10 a.m. $15. 727-736-1176. dunedinmuseum.org.

Dunedin Victorian Sunset Stroll Join a tour guide costumed in Victorian-era clothing for an in-depth look at the history of Dunedin’s Victoria Drive and its early 1880s homes. Tourgoers will learn about the families who lived there as well as the history of the homes themselves. On Second Fridays, the guides are costumed in Victorian period clothing. Advance reservations requested. Meets at the corner of Victoria Dr. and Main St. by the Dunedin marina and the Best Western October-May on the second Friday of the month, 5:30 p.m. $15. 727-736-1176. dunedinmuseum.org.


Historic Gulfport Tour Walk through the historic downtown neighborhood and learn about square mullet, the WPA’s impact on the town and its one-time topless bar. Tourgoers will also see a freshwater spring, learn the story of the horse that wandered through downtown a few years ago and why the casino, now on land, used to sit over water. September 29, 6:30 p.m.; thereafter, third Saturday of the month at 3 p.m. Tour starts at Gulfport History Museum, 5301 28th Ave. S.; ends at Pia’s Trattoria, 3054 Beach Blvd. S., a few blocks from the museum. $10; free for members of Gulfport Historical Society. stpetepreservation.org.


Safety Harbor Ghost Tour A two-hour tour of Safety Harbor’s most haunted spots, including the Safety Harbor Spa (we’re not sure whether its ghosts wear sheets or towels). This tour requires advance reservations; the Oct. 29 tour will take tourgoers inside a haunted house. Meets at John Wilson Park, corner of 4th Ave. N and Main St. Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. $20. 727-687-8785. safetyharbortours.com.

Safety Harbor History Tour This tour goes past the oldest oak tree in Pinellas County, called the Baranoff Tree, the site of the old Safety Harbor Herald building, and ends at the Spa. Advance reservations required. Tour meets at John Wilson Park, corner of 4th Ave. N and Main St. Wed.-Sat., 10 a.m. $15. 727-687-8785. safetyharbortours.com.


Historic Central Avenue District Walking Tour Located slightly north of downtown Tampa, this walking tour takes tourgoers through six blocks of Tampa’s African-American culture, from the historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church building to Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Stops include Oaklawn Cemetery (the first person buried there in 1850 was an enslaved African), Perry Harvey St. Park (the historic Central Avenue site), Encore housing development (including Ray Charles Boulevard) and the Robert W. Saunders African American Research Public Library and Cultural Arts Center (named for the former Florida NAACP executive secretary). By reservation only for groups of 10 or more. $15. 813-545-3183. fhearns@netzero.net.


public domain

Discover Ybor Historic Tour This free tour, downloaded to your phone, has three routes from which you can choose: short, medium or long. It also has a scavenger hunt feature, and many of the stops also have audio content. Created by the Ybor City Museum Society. Starts at the Ybor City Museum State Park (the old Ferlita Bakery Building), 1818 E. 9th Ave. Download at savvycard.com/ybor.

Mafia Tour Presented by Cigar City Magazine Scott Deitche (author of The Silent Don and Cigar City Mafia: The Criminal Underworld of Santo Trafficante Jr.) partners with Cigar City Magazine to give tourgoers the colorful underworld history of Ybor City. The tour visits old gambling places and shows where many mobsters met a mobster-riffic ending on city alleys and corners. Tour price includes t-shirt. Meets at King Corona, 1523 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City. Sept. 10 and Oct. 1 (tours run monthly through May; check website for future day), 5:30 p.m. $30. cigarcitymagazine.com.

Walk Tampa: The Ybor City Story Learn about Ybor City’s beginnings and what life looked like at the turn of the 20th century. As Tampa’s sole National Historic Landmark District, Ybor represents the spirit of immigration in America better than any other district in the area, and tourgoers will visit mutual aid societies to learn more. The tour also gives people insight into the people, social life and work culture of early Ybor. Meets at the Cuban Club, 2010 N. Avenida Republica De Cuba. Second Saturday of the month, 10:30 a.m. $20. 813-228-0097. tampabayhistorycenter.org.

Ybor City Ghost Tour Is King Corona haunted? Do the lovers trapped in the Orpheum Theatre’s basement still haunt the theater? What about the child who drowned in the Cuban Club pool? Did he ever find his way home? This tour tells these stories — and others. Reservations strongly suggested. Meets at King Corona, 1523 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City. Nightly, 7:30 p.m. $25. 813-386-3905 yborghosttour.com.

Ybor City Walking Tour Visit Cuban-owned land, learn how Ybor played a central role in freeing Cuba from Spain and discover Ybor’s immigration history. Ybor’s patchwork cultures come together in this tour of the city. Reservations required. Meets at Vicente Martinez-Ybor statue at Centro Ybor on 7th Ave. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Sun., 12 p.m. $20. 813-505-6779. yborwalking tours.com.

This article initially appeared at cltampa.com.