The city, in 1990, has a population of 280,015. I make my first visit to Tampa with a friend in 1994, even though I have lived in Gainesville since 1985 and Tampa is only 2 hours away. We are here to attend a state “rail-trail” conference. After the conference Saturday, we ride our bikes on the highly popular Pinellas Rail-Trail (a person we met on the trail tells us the trail is the best thing the county had ever done), then head to Pinellas Park for their “old-tyme dance.” (squares, circles, contras)
Tampa is the third largest city in the state. In 1528, Panfilo de Narvaez negotiated a peace treaty with the Indians, but hostility between the Indians and whites remained a barrier to settlement for 200 years. In 1864, the city was captured by Union troops during the Civil War. The University of Tampa (established in 1931) is housed in a hotel modeled after the Alhambra in Spain, and the University of South Florida is also in the city, and was established in 1956.
On a Friday night, we take in some sight-seeing in Hyde Park and Ybor City (the two redevelopment areas where the City is trying to rejuvenate its downtown in the face of suburban sprawl). We go to nightclubs at the restored Ybor City, a city that historically was the king of cigar making—beginning in the 1880s—in Florida (indeed, the city is sometimes called the “cigar capital of America”) and still retains a lot of charm due to a traditionally designed downtown area. Here we enjoy some great music.
Built in 1886 by Spanish immigrant Vicente Martinez Ybor, who came from Key West. Ybor found and cleared a 40-acre tract of scrub and pine land east of Tampa, and, in 1886, built what was then the largest cigar factory in the world (Ybor Square). He drew other cigar factories to the site, and thousands of immigrant Cuban cigar makers. Later, a smaller number of Spanish and Italian workers arrived. By 1900, the immigrants had increased Tampa’s population to 30,000.
Ybor City was an important focal point that lead to the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the 1890’s, Cuban insurgents attempted to reclaim their island from oppressive Royal Spanish control and, in 1893, thousands of cigar workers cheered the Cuban patriot, Jose Marti. Marti, from the wrought iron steps of the Ybor factory, pleaded for men, money, and arms for the insurgents. Marti was killed in action in 1895 but his dream was realized in 1898 when thousands of U.S. troops arrived in Tampa and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders galloped to the rescue on Ybor’s streets full of excited insurgents.
When Ybor died, a Cigar Trust was organized among the factory workers. The Trust tried to introduce “efficiency” into what was essentially an artistic handcraft. In addition, Tampa’s leaders aggressively coveted the rich industry. These influences provoked a series of strikes by cigar workers in the early part of the century.
The cigar workers, after a half a century of success, abruptly fell victim to the automated machine-made cigar. By 1950, many of the big factories had closed or left town. Only a few small “buckeye” operators kept alive the handrolling art, and a centuries-old craft was nearly lost.
In the late 1960’s, an ill-conceived Urban Renewal program began, and is remembered today for its having renewed nothing whatsoever. Instead, it bulldozed a giant swath through the residential heart of Ybor City north of 7th Avenue, uprooting generations of families from their ancestral dwellings. After the bulldozers, the town stagnated, and for years there remained only long vacant stretches of sand and weed-filled blocks.
In 1972, Harris Mullen, the publisher of Florida Trend magazine, purchased an abandoned factory from the Hav-A-Tampa Cigar Corporation. Mullen envisioned an ethnic mall complex of specialty shops and restaurants. Because of this vision, Ybor City is one of the most unique historic and cultural attractions in the state. Ybor Square has sparked the restoration of the vital “heart” of a city, a priceless portion of its character and cultural heritage.