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Preserving historic Ybor is a civic responsibility

A small military outpost sits in the sweltering heat. A lector reads to Italian and Spanish immigrants about Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders taking San Juan Hill in Cuba. An illegal gin joint smuggles moonshine into a secret bolt hole under the floor boards during a prohibition police raid.

These were the happenings on the outskirts of Tampa during the formative years of Ybor City, one of only three National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. While nightclubs and boutiques thrive in Ybor City, many of its historical sites face hard times, with the potential loss of state grants they rely on for survival.

These buildings tell a story – the story of Tampa – and they deserve to be safeguarded for generations to come. The buildings of Ybor describe the industrial boom in the late 1800s and the cigar making that followed it. They are testaments to the economic decline in the early 20th century and the attempts to wipe the historical slate clean through urban renewal. These buildings represent a timeless community asset and need community protection to ensure their survival.

Henry Bradford Plant arrived in the Tampa area in 1881. He saw great potential in the city, and by the late 1800s he had brought a railroad, port and steamships to Tampa. He also built the Tampa Bay Hotel – now the University of Tampa – in 1891.

The port, railways and relatively mild weather enticed Miami and Key West cigar makers to relocate to Tampa. Ybor City became home to Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants working in more than 140 cigar factories producing 250 million cigars per year. Trolley cars rattled down La Septima Avenida, boys sold deviled crabs on the corner and lectors read La Gaceta – Ybor’s tri-lingual newspaper that still prints today – to the factory workers as they rolled cigars.

After World War II, families left cities and headed for the suburbs while many cigar factories moved north. Ybor fell into disrepair.

In a highly questionable move, the government of Tampa created an office for urban renewal in 1962 and used federal funds to tear down large swaths of Ybor City amid promises of rebuilding, despite the vocal objection of many local residents.

Many years passed and most of the destroyed acreage remained undeveloped. What areas the government rebuilt bore witness to bland, impersonal structures devoid of either architectural merit or any kind of structural personality. Development occurred slowly, leading much of Ybor to slide back into poor condition. This regression persisted for years, creating a dangerous district overrun by troublemakers and criminals. Only a few nightclubs and one pool hall were exceptions to Ybor City’s downward trajectory.

The Los Novededaz Restaurant was a watering hole for Teddy Roosevelt during the fight for Cuban freedom and reputedly the birthplace of the popular “Cuba Libre” (rum with Coke and lime).

The nightclub Tracks welcomed all, but catered particularly to the Tampa area’s gay and lesbian crowd. The good times there became so legendary that soon people of all sexual preferences, colors and creeds filled the establishment to capacity every weekend.

Masquerade also drew a heavy, dedicated crowd committed to thrashing away the weekend listening to industrial music.

These clubs’ successes foreshadowed Ybor City’s next great transformation. Between 1990 and 1998, 155 new businesses, $45 million in private investments, 1,500 new jobs and more than 400,000 square feet of building renovation streamed into Ybor City. Abandoned warehouses morphed into profitable nightclubs. As paying customers frequented the strip and an increased police presence improved security, more restaurant and entertainment venue owners became attracted to the area.

Fast-forward to the present and one can find plenty of interesting destinations in Ybor. Many people know Ybor as a party destination. In fact, it is second only to Busch Gardens in luring tourists to Tampa.

The state grants supporting Ybor’s historic sites were cut due to budget demands, according to the Tampa Tribune. Community leaders plan to ask Hillsborough County commissioners to set aside $3 million to create endowments to support the preservation of the district’s historic buildings: a modest request compared to what is spent on other community centerpieces. This reasonable proposal would keep central aspects of Ybor’s rich past alive, thus benefiting the Tampa community.

Jason Olivero has received a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Florida and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.