Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Ybor City

January 13, 2011 13 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville explores one of Florida's earliest planned industrial communities: Tampa's Ybor City.

About Ybor City

Ybor City is a historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, located just northeast of downtown. It was founded as an independent town in 1885 by a group of cigar manufacturers led by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and was annexed by Tampa in 1887. The community was originally populated by Cuban and Spanish immigrants who worked in the cigar factories, followed shortly thereafter by Italian and Eastern-European Jewish immigrants who started businesses that catered to the cigar industry and its workers. The community was unique in the American South for its multi-ethnic nature and its civic organizations, which included mutual aid societies and an active organized labor presence.

Ybor City grew and prospered until the Great Depression, when a sharp reduction in the worldwide demand for fine cigars started the area on a slow decline. The end of World War II saw a steady stream of residents begin to leave the aging neighborhood. This process accelerated through the 1950s and 60s, when the federal Urban Renewal program and the construction of Interstate 4 resulted in the destruction of many buildings, including most of the housing units. Planned redevelopment never took place, and, with its commercial and social core virtually abandoned, Ybor City lapsed into a decades-long period of neglect and decay.

Beginning in the 1980s, the area around the old Ybor City business district began a slow recovery; first as a haven for artists, and then as a popular nightlife and entertainment district by the 1990s. Since 2000, many buildings around the old commercial center of 7th Avenue have been renovated or restored and many new multi-family residential units have been built, leading to a steady increase in the neighborhood's population.
Planning An Industrial City

Tampa was a small town with a population of about 3,000 and no resident cigar workers. Ybor would have to convince potential employees to leave established communities in Key West (and Cuba and New York) to help build a frontier settlement. While he enjoyed the goodwill of many Cuban tabaqueros because of his well-known support for ђCuba LibreҒ, that would not be enough.

Ybor’s idea was to build a modified company town. Unlike other such communities in which the company owned virtually all of the housing and businesses (such as Pullman, Illinois), Ybor envisioned a place in which employees could own their homes and private entrepreneurs could buy land on which to build businesseses. This, he hoped, would create a pleasant environment to better attract more residents to Ybor City.

Ybor also had good business reasons to be magnanimous. His goal was to not only attract residents to town, but to get them to stay. His employees in Key West had often traveled back and forth between Florida and Cuba looking for the best pay and conditions. By offering the anchor of land and home ownership – something most tabaqueros had never experienced, especially in land-scarce Key West – Ybor encouraged his workers to stick around. Though the workforce was still relatively fluid in the early years, enough workers remained in Tampa to keep the cigar factories fully staffed and running year-round.

So along with the hastily-built wooden factories constructed by Ybor and Haya, some of the first structures in Ybor City were 50 small houses (ђcasitasҒ) for prospective employees. These narrow shotgun-style homes (so called because a shot fired through the front door would theoretically exit harmlessly out of the aligned back door) were small wooden structures, but they were well-built and relatively comfortable. Ybor offered them for sale at a price just above his cost to build them (initially $400), payable in small deductions from the workers’ salary in his cigar factory.

Another of Ybor’s modifications to the company town model was that his community was not a one-(or even two-) company town. To increase the number of jobs (and thus the pool of available workers), Ybor encouraged other cigar manufacturers to move to his new colony by offering cheap land and a free factory building if they agreed to meet certain job-creation quotas.

7th Avenue

7th Avenue was formerly known as Georgia and Broadway Avenues and also known as La Gran Septima Avenida.  It is the main commercial corridor for the historic district.

Over a century ago, L'Unione Italiana was founded by a small visionary group who realized that by uniting together, the Italian community of Tampa could overcome many of the social and economic challenges that confronted those "turn-of-the-century" immigrants from Italy.

Since reaching our 100 year anniversary of this venerable organization, we now become the "turn-of-the-century Italians. Because of the courage, imagination, resiliency and pride that our ancestors brought to this country and instilled in us, we find ourselves, at the end of this century, so much better off socially, economically and educationally than our immigrant ancestors were. The image of the gaunt, threadbare, and downtrodden immigrants carrying suitcases has been replaced by the appearance of thriving, frequently fashionable, and confident entrepreneurs, educators and professionals carrying briefcases.

The significant transformation in both the status and the stature of Tampa's Italian-American community, now well into its fourth generation, has provided us with new challenges, evolving needs, and concerns much different than those which faced our predecessors. As a result, the formulas by which L'Unione Italiana has operated for over a century no longer effectively served the needs of modern Italians. Since L'Unione Italiana does, indeed, aspire to serve the modern Italians as effectively as it served those early immigrants, we must re-direct our goals to reflect more accurately the interests, identities and profiles of today's Italian-American population. The challenge is to modernize our focus, without abandoning or disregarding the rich heritage that has contributed to what we are today.

Centro Ybor

Ybor City Museum State Park is a Florida State Park that occupies the former Ferlita Bakery in Ybor City's National Historic District, at 1818 9th Avenue. It recounts the history of the cigar industry and the Latin community and there from the 1880s through the 1930s. There is also an ornamental garden in the building, which the park makes available for rental after regular hours.

The Ferlita family opened their bakery in 1896 and continued the business through 1922 when the wooden structure was destroyed by fire. The yellow brick building was built around the original brick ovens. The brick building now houses the Ybor City Museum State Park. The Ferlita family continued to bake bread until 1973 and at its peak approximately 5,000 loafs of Cuban bread were baked daily.
The bread, baked daily, was delivered to the surrounding homes of the immigrants. It cost three to five cents and often was purchased on credit. The bread would be delivered fresh each morning and hung on a single nail by the front door of the worker's casita, unwrapped. It would still be warm as it made its way to the breakfast table.

Originally located on 5th Avenue, the casitas were moved in 1976 to their present location as part of a preservation effort that included the Ferlita Bakery and a number of other structures in the community.

The houses are modified shotgun houses built from Florida pine with cypress or cedar wood shingles. The architectural style -- three rooms in a row with doorways (ostensibly allowing a bullet to pass from the front to the back door) -- was popular throughout the rural South and was a feature of the "factory town" that was early Ybor City.

This house had many design features particularly suited to conditions in Florida. Until 1910 these and similar houses lacked city sewer hook-up or indoor plumbing, and many were without electricity until the early 1920s. Casitas rented for $1.50 to $2.50 a week or could be purchased from $400 to $900, depending on size. By allowing workers to deduct house payments from their wages, Vicente Ybor and other cigar manufacturers contributed to the stability and security of the work force in Ybor City, and eased the hardships of immigration and acculturation.  The interior of these homes are part of the museum tour.

centennial park: The Scene – Bordered by two brick breezeways, the park has plenty of benches and trees to relax in the shade. Statues, monuments and signs also tell of Ybor's history. Named in 1986, the park is dedicated to Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the city's developer. It's known for the Immigrant Statue at the North entrance, which honors immigrants who arrived during the turn of the century. Statues of Mayor Nick Nuccio, first elected in 1956, and civic leader Anthony P. Pizzo welcome visitors along the South entrance.

The old Cyrilla Cigar Company is now a part of Hillsborough State College's Ybor campus.

Erected in 1886-88, the Cherokee Club (also known as "El Pasaje") was the second brick building in Ybor City.  It was popular with the elite and famous.  Well known visitors included Jose Marti, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and artist Frederic Remington.

Bolita was an illegal lottery game run by organized criminals that was very popular in Tampa, especially Ybor City, during the first half of the 20th century. While many people played and everybody knew about them, these games operated with virtual impunity due to bribes and kickbacks to key local politicians and law enforcement officials. Charlie Wall, a member of a prominent "Anglo" Tampa family and son of a former mayor, organized the game into a large profit-making (and still illegal) business in the late 1920s and expanded into other questionable ventures from his base of operations in Ybor City.

The 1930s were a time of rampant corruption in Tampa, with many accusations of stolen elections and mayors on the payrolls of rival organized crime factions. After a time known locally as the “Era of Blood” in which local criminal interests fought over control, Santo Trafficante, Sr. pushed Wall aside and emerged as Tampa and Ybor City’s leading crime boss in the 1940s. Later, his son Santo Trafficante, Jr. allegedly extended the family’s influence far beyond the area.

This era of rampant corruption wound down with increased federal law enforcement efforts beginning in the 1950s. Although few of the resulting trials resulted in convictions and some mob-related activity continued, the sense of lawlessness in Ybor City and Tampa in general gradually diminished.

Centro Place is a 160 unit multifamily infill development spread out over four city blocks.  Centro Place's site was location of the Centro Asturiano Hospital, which operated from 1928 to 1991.

On October 10, 1899, Cuban immigrants formed a recreational society known as El Club Nacional Cubano. Three years later, the society of three hundred members changed its name to El Círculo Cubano. According to the 1902 charter, the Círculo Cubano was formed "for the mutual benefit and enjoyment of its members and for the charitable purposes and instruction of its members and the dissemination of knowledge among all classes of people." In order to preserve harmony among its diverse membership, the statutes of the club expressly prohibited any discussion within the society of labor, politics, or religion. In 1917, the Cuban Club opened the doors of its neoclassic clubhouse at 2010 Avenida República de Cuba in Ybor City. Since then, the Círculo Cubano has provided a theater, grand ballroom, medical clinic, cantina, gym, and library to its members. The activities of the Cuban Club have changed over time, but it remains open to all men and women who are dedicated to the preservation of the Cuban heritage and culture of Florida. Members do not have to be Cuban or of Cuban ancestry, but they must be committed to the original purposes for which the club was founded.

In the days of the Indians, the spring located at this site was a shrine to the Timuquan water gods.  The early Spanish and other settlers used it, then it was the water supply for Fort Brooke known as the Government Spring. In 1884, H.A. Snodgrass opened a ten-ton ice plant here but, because of competition from other ice firms, he moved his plant to Cedar Key.  Florida Brewing Company, the first brewery in the state, incorporated in 1896 and that year erected this plant, designed by August Maritzen. It is six stories tall and when built, was the tallest building in Tampa.  The water from the spring was the main ingredient in its La Tropical Beer.  It was modeled after the Castle Brewery in Johannesburg.  The beer was termed the "finest in America" by the Tampa Times in 1900.  The brewery shipped more beer to Cuba than any other in the United States.  The large building is now a collection of offices. co ybor cigar&f=false

Ybor Square, built in 1886, is Ybor City's most famous building. In 1893, Cuban Revolutionary leader Jose Marti stood often on the stairway entrance on the building's east side, speaking eloquently for Cuban independence.

Constructed as a cigar factory by Ybor City's founder and namesake, Vicente Martinez Ybor, the structure covers a full block between 8th and 9th Avenues and 13th and 14th Streets. Hav-a-Tampa was the last cigar company to occupy the building for its intended use.

As of May 5th, the V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory, more commonly known as Ybor Square is now the property of the Church of Scientology.

Plans for factory include office space and a place for assembly. The Church of Scientology has stated that they have out grown their current Tampa facility, the Andres Diaz Cigar Factory on N. Habana Ave.

Current tenants of Ybor Square are the Spaghetti Warehouse, Creative Loafing (a weekly local publication) and Centurian Center (a executive suite rental company). Spaghetti Warehouse and Creative Loafing are in the old Warehouse Building and Centurian Center rents two floors in the Factory Building.

The Church of Scientology plans on using the Factory and Stemmery Buildings for their office and assembly space with no immediate plans for the Warehouse Building. Spaghetti Warehouse and Creative Loafing will become tenants of the Church of Scientology.

By the early 1960’s, success demanded more space and the Fuente family moved their company into the historic “Charles the Great” cigar factory. This four-story red-brick building was built in 1895 and remains an architectural gem of Ybor City. Carlos, was now president of the firm, and Arturo Oscar was Vice-President.

The 1970’s was a period of economical and industrial challenges. Runaway inflation and inability to find skilled workers caused the company to look abroad. During the early 1980’s, producing hand-rolled cigars became a lost art in Tampa and visionary changes took place. Factories were started in Nicaragua then Honduras, but misfortune once again struck sending the now named “Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania” to the Dominican Republic. There they began with only seven employees. After several years, the demand from loyal cigar customers necessitated more workers and factories. Today “Tabacalera A.Fuente y Compania” has over 2,500 employees and four factories.

In 1994, all Arturo Fuente operations were finally closed from the “Charles the Great” factory. At that time, Arturo Oscar officially retired from the company and then opened “Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Company,” in that same building. “Tampa Sweethearts” is a retail outlet and mail order business that is all run by family members. Today, his elder son, Arturo Oscar Jr., is president of the company. Here you will find Arturo Fuente®, Montesino®, Flor de Ybor City®, as well as the apprentice-rolled Tampa Sweethearts® cigars.

Constructed in 1910 as the Berriman Brothers Cigar Company.  Cigar manufacturing operations at this ceased in 1971 and today the building is the home of U-Haul.

Founded in 1895, the J.C. Newman Cigar Company is a four-generation family business that manufactures and distributes premium cigars. As a Hungarian immigrant, J.C. Newman rolled his first cigars in the family barn in Cleveland in 1895. In 1954, the company moved to Tampa's Ybor City cigar district to be closer to Cuba. J.C. Newman is also the worldwide distributor for Arturo Fuente cigars, except for Western Europe. Today, J.C. Newman's cigars are sold in 80 countries around the world.

This vacant building was a cigar factory built for the Perfecto Garcia and Brothers Cigar Company in 1914.

This building was completed in 1909 for the Esberg-Gunst Cigar Company.  In 1925, it was purchased by the Corral-Wodiska and Company.  Cigar manufacturing would end when the company was purchased by Jacksonville's Swisher in 1985.  The building later became the home of a garment manufacturing business.  Today, its used as office space.

Box Factory Lofts is a new Urban Tampa Loft Condominium community located in Historic Ybor City.  The building is an original 1890's Tampa cigar box manufacturing factory with many traditional design elements that hearkens back to the early days of Ybor City and Tampa.  At that time, Tampa was considered the 'Cigar Capital of the World' and many of the cigars that made Tampa famous were delivered in beautiful wooden boxes that came from this very building!  Inside, the two-story loft units are a combination of traditional industrial space with large, exposed wood beams and massive architectural windows combined with sleek and modern design.  Premium surfaces usually include Granite, stainless steel appliances and stained concrete floors. Units range in size from 950 square feet to 1,700 square feet of living space. The new Ybor City Ikea store is directly across the street and the sizzling nightlife of Ybor City is only five blocks away.

Jacksonville's Connection

While Tampa is known as the primary historic home to cigar makers, the industry also spread to other Florida cities in the late 19th century.  

In addition to Tampa, cities including Jacksonville, Orlando and Ocala offered free land or rent-free buildings for cigar factories.  In many cases, manufacturers were exempt from paying taxes and insurance for 10 years.

This downtown building onced housed the El Modelo cigar factory.

Soon names such as the El Modelo, Garcia Brothers, Gonzalez & Sanchez, Metzner & Co, Dzialynski and El Esmero dominated Jacksonville's industrial scene.  For example, Jose Alejandro Huau's El Esmera Cigar Factory, at Bay and Main Streets, earned as much as $200,000, producing six to eight million cigars annually in 1870.

By 1895, cigar making in Jacksonville was the city's second largest industry behind lumber mills.  Some Tampa factory owners, such as Angel Cuesta (Cuesta-Rey & Co.) would also open second locations in Jacksonville.  

Cigar manufacturing in Tampa tended to be concentrated in the communities of Ybor City and West Tampa.  These compact communities of immigrants create the multicultural environment that Tampa has become today.  In Jacksonville, 19th and early 20th century city directories indicate that before the Great Fire of 1901, the majority of the city's factories were located in LaVilla, along Bay and Bridge (Broad) Streets.  After the fire, the industry became more dispersed and lost it economic status to the railroad, paper, silent film and shipbuilding industries.

This 1900 era cigar factory became the home of the Silent Film era's Norman Studios in Jacksonville's Arlington neighborhood.

While Tampa has enjoyed the prestige associated with this industry's history, cigar making in Jacksonville led to the industry's decline in Tampa.  Ybor's golden age peaked in 1929, with the community's factories pumping out 500 million hand-rolled cigars right before the Great Depression took hold.

Combined with a fall in worldwide cigar demand, manufacturers began to mechanize their cigar rolling operations.

Swisher International's plant in Springfield is the largest cigar manufacturing operation in the world.

By 1939, Ybor had 122 factories with 10,000 workers producing 258 million cigars and an annual payroll of $8 million.  At the same time, a single Jacksonville factory (Swisher) employed 2,000 but produced more than 400 million cigars because it was fully mechanized.

Today, Jacksonville's Swisher International's 86-year-old cigar factory is the largest in the world, employing 1,100 and producing as many as 8.5 million cigars a day.  On the other hand, Tampa's last major cigar company (J.C. Newman) makes 40,000 cigars a day out of its historic Ybor City factory.  What remains to be uncovered is the reason the industry didn't have the social and cultural impact in Jacksonville that it did in Ybor City and West Tampa.

Article & Photos by Ennis Davis