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Pass the Cigars: Tampa's Latin Quarter is Reborn


Where once you followed the sweet smell of prime tobacco to Tampa, Florida's Latin Quarter, today you follow the crowd. The former cigar capital of the world has become the nightclub capital of Florida's thriving West Coast and beyond.

 

The fringe district on the cutting edge was grafted onto Tampa more than a hundred years ago. It is called Ybor (pronounced ee-bore) City after Don Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban exile who opened a cigar factory there in 1886. Renovated and revitalized, the factory is now the fashionable and trendy Ybor Square on Thirteenth Street. It is one of dozens of Spanish-style buildings with wrought-iron balconies and ornate grillwork that house bars, nightclubs, restaurants, shops, art galleries and museums along red brick streets studded with old-fashioned lampposts.

Century old buildings are the backdrops for 'Cigar City's' booming nightlife. Copyright Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.Ybor City started thriving about the time cigar and martini bars became fashionable a few years ago, but that was mere coincidence say the planners and preservationists responsible for its rebirth. Serious restoration was already underway and today Ybor City in one of only three national historic landmark districts in Florida.

Ybor City's decline had begun before World War II, but it was hastened by the embargo of Cuban tobacco following the emergence of Fidel Castro. The recent increase in communication and tourist traffic between Cuba and the United States has helped fuel interest in Ybor City and the Cuban patriots who settled there during the Spanish-American War. A small park in Ybor City, called Parque Amigos de Marti, is owned by the Cuban government and contains soil from each of the provinces of Cuba.

Ironically, once the Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants who made their living in the cigar industry could afford to move away, they left Ybor City for more fashionable neighborhoods. Today developers can't build lofts and apartment fast enough for the young professionals and empty nesters that want to resettle the area.

If you follow the crowd into the quarter at dusk, you might catch the startling sight of a tall man in a long coat with arms outspread, eyes closed and body vibrating to some mysterious rhythm as he channels the ghosts of Ybor City's colorful past.

During a 90-minute guided Ghost Walk that begins at Joffrey's Coffee Co. on Seventh Avenue, Philip Cuomo, a transplanted New York actor, or one of his fellow actors, brings to life 10 characters whose presence can still be felt in Ybor City. As the voice of the vanquished, Cuomo, who has guided the tour for a year, says it still surprises him when people out to party in the neighborhood jump in and start talking to the ghosts.

Daytime shoppers give way to partygoers and ghost of the past at night along Seventh Avenue. Copyright Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.Cuomo's favorite ghost is a man he calls "Night Owl" because he worked in the famous Ferlita Bakery during the day and dealt cards for backroom gamblers at night. Night Owl was full of energy and optimism, two traits that Cuomo uses to good advantage when he is conducting the Ghost Walk.

Testifying to how rapidly the district is changing, the actor says that when he returned from a two-month acting engagement in Orlando last fall, "Restaurants had been torn down and walkways where we had done part of our tour were blocked off."

Ferlita Bakery, built in 1923, still stands, and its original ovens are inside, but don't expect to get a whiff of fresh-baked bread. The one-story light yellow brick building is now the Ybor City State Museum where exhibits tell the stories of the past. If you ever wondered why your great-great grandfather, who worked in a factory and had only an eighth-grade education, was known for his knowledge of Shakespeare and Dickens, you can find the answer in this museum. Factory workers paid people called "lectors" to read novels, plays, magazines and newspapers to them while they worked. Today's equivalent is a TV set emitting (what is in comparison mindless) hours of talk shows, sports and soap operas.

Shopkeepers didn't need to commute to work when the B.F. Marcos Building was constructed in 1908. They lived above the store. That lifestyle is being recaptured. Copyright Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.Proof that the immigrants who worked in Ybor City's cigar factories valued their culture and were as fun-loving as the crowds who throng through the Latin Quarter today can be found in the history of their community organizations. L'Union Italiana (The Italian Club) is still a Seventh Avenue landmark. Famous opera singers and shows from Europe were brought to this stately building with its Corinthian columns and neoclassical architecture. Cuban immigrants built a gymnasium and boxing arena in their Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club) in addition to a theater, cantina, pharmacy, library and ballroom.

The bakeries and cigar factories are not as prevalent today as they were during Ybor City's heyday in the twenties and thirties, but enticing aromas waft through the streets from coffeehouses and restaurants.

The beat of live music that ripples from bars and clubs along Seventh Avenue has turned it into the entertainment hub of the Latin Quarter. The thickest parade on any given night is usually headed toward the Columbia Restaurant, the local "palace" of Spanish cuisine and flamenco. Founded by Casimiro Hernandez, in 1905, as a corner café, the Columbia now covers a full city block. It is the oldest and largest restaurant in the United States. Locals, who often flaunt the retro look of Ybor City's heyday -- slicked-back hair and bow ties for the men; curls, slinky dresses and spike-heels for the women -- mingle with casually dressed tourists in the Columbia's many bars and dining rooms. One expects to see chic locals pull out miniature humidors and silver flasks the way famous people like Teddy Roosevelt or Winston Churchill might have done when they visited Ybor City.

To roll out your own good times in a custom vacation package in Tampa's Ybor City, call 800-36-TAMPA, or check with your travel agent.

Ybor City Ghost Walk offers guided strolls through the Latin Quarter beginning at Joffrey's Coffee Co. on Seventh Ave. To arrange a tour call 813-242-9255.

For reservations at Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. 7th Ave.), call 813-248-4961.

Live music and entertainment can be found in a number of bars and nightclubs. Among those on Seventh Avenue are Fat Tuesday's (1722 E. 7TH Ave.), 813-248-9755; The Rare Olive martini and jazz bar (1601 E. 7TH Ave.) 813-248-2333; and The Rubb (1507 E. 7TH Ave.) 813-247-4225.

Web sites to visit for more information are www.gotampa.com or www.ybor.org

Thanks to the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce for use of their photos!