Ruskin, FL Friday March 13
Nowadays much of America is similar. Strip shopping areas, subdivisions of neutral color homes, urban centers with science centers, art museums, shopping malls. We are trying to visit at least some of the slightly different parts of the country.
Friday we visited one such, Ybor City, a part of Tampa. We stopped at the Ybor City Museum State Park located in a former Italian bakery and strolled the streets of the city. We had Cuban toast for lunch and talked with Arturo Fuente Jr., the grandson of one of the long time cigar makers. Cigar stores are abundant on the main street. You recognize early on that this is one of a few communities in America where you do not complain about smoking.
Ybor City is trying to maintain its uniqueness. Now, after urban redevelopment flattened buildings, interstates divided its neighborhoods, and suburban development emptied city neighborhoods, Ybor City is gaining new economic strength but through the new drivers of economic development, tourism and eating/drinking out.
As we have noted in other posts, Florida developed late in U.S. history, particularly when you consider most development started in the east and worked its way west. Tampa was a small village in the late 1800s with a good port. Henry Plant built the railroad system on the Gulf side of Florida, similar to Flagler’s efforts on the Atlantic Coast. Plant’s railroad reached Tampa when it was still a small village.
At the same time, Cuba was under Spanish control. One of Cuba’s products was cigars. Due to political strife in Cuba, as it was trying to seek independence from Spain, making cigars was difficult. Don Vincente Martinez Ybor was a Spaniard wealthy from the cigar manufacturing business. He sought a stable location for his cigar making business. Initially he set up shop in Key West Florida but the lack of reliable transportation or potable water forced him into looking elsewhere.
The port and city of Tampa were mentioned to him as a potential location. The few business people in Tampa recognized the potential economic driver of the cigar business and in 1885, they underwrote 50% of the purchase cost for land for his business. They also agreed to provide police protection in case of any potential labor strife. Ybor offered his workforce free housing in casitas, small bungalow style homes. His factory became the largest in the world. Ybor City became a thriving cigar making community, as other cigar manufacturers joined Ybor here. (Ybor City was annexed to Tampa in the early 1900s.)
Due to the strife in Cuba, workers thronged to this new community. Unrest in Italy added another immigrant population to work in the town. They were joined by immigrants from Germany and Romania, as well as Spaniards direct from Spain, not just from Cuba. America’s recently freed slaves were also part of the workforce. Ybor City became a melting pot of races, religions and ethnic groups. The access to the port provided a means to ship in tobacco from Cuba. The new railroad lines provided direct distribution to the entire United States. Eventually, Ybor City became the cigar manufacturing center of the world.
Besides the free company housing, the cigar manufacturers offered a new and unique benefit. Each cigar factory had a reader. This was a person, hired by the workforce, that for four hours each day read to the workers. During the course of the reading time, workers would hear the daily news, then a classical book, and then a current novel. The reading was in Spanish, so the other immigrant groups would learn Spanish at work. The reading of the novel frequently brought family members to the outside of the factory so they could hear the reader through the windows. Quite a unique set up.
Similar to some other cities, Ybor city offered local immigrant mutual aid societies. Each immigrant group had its own cultural center. This provided social activities, medical services, and a meeting place after work-for the men. Ybor City was a true melting pot. However, Tampa, like all of the south, had Jim Crow laws. While the factory floor was exempt, other parts of town were segregated. Due to the laws of genetics, within individual families, skin tone varied. Family members were frequently unable to attend the same activities based on their skin color. Ybor City was not perfect, other class stereotypes existed to decide who was management and who was labor. Labor strife was not unknown here.
The heavy Spanish influence made Ybor City an early US home base for Cuban efforts to obtain their independence from Spain. José Marti, recognized as a leader in a Cuban independence, visited here often. Residents of Ybor City provided money, materials, and soldiers for the Cuban revolutionary efforts. Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders, along with other US soldiers, were stationed here during the war between the United States and Spain in 1898. Ybor City still has a Rough Riders parade annually.
As strife was gaining ground, but before war was declared, Spain forbade the shipping of Cuban tobacco to other countries. Ybor City cigar makers managed to buy a year’s supply of tobacco before the embargo was effected. Fortunately for them, the war ended soon and Cuban independence provided them with a continuous supply of tobacco.
The cigar industry ruled in Tampa until the depression began. Cigar making machines, loss of disposable income, and the introduction of cigarettes brought about the near collapse of the business. Today a few small cigar manufacturers exist, others have moved to the Dominican Republic but maintain the business headquarters here. Of course, the U.S.-Cuba relatonship has ended the supply of Cuban tobacco to the U.S.
So Ybor City and its unique history went away. The uniqueness of the readers, the cigar industry world dominance, the easy mixing of immigrant groups with its mutual aid societies no longer exist. In other ways, Ybor City reflected several American trends; subsidies to businesses, the role of railroads in shaping new towns, interstate construction and VA loans only to new houses decimating urban dwellers, the destruction of unique city areas in the name of redevelopment, even the political control of Tampa politics for decades by the illicit, underground gambling bosses.
It does not take all day to visit Ybor City. We took a street car to downtown Tampa and walked along their riverfront. We returned to Ybor City to have dinner at the Columbia restaurant. This is Tampa’s oldest restaurant and possibly the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Family owned since 1905, the restaurant takes up a full city block and can seat 1700 people in 15 dining rooms. We had a great meal and watched 45 minutes of flamenco dancing. But, we chose to have Working Cow ice cream for dessert back in Apollo Beach by Ruskin.
Ed and Chris 3/14/15 Noon