Ybor City in Tampa is more than a historic theme park

Ybor City is called “the heart of Tampa”. He is.

In the 43 years between its founding in 1886 and the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Ybor City was the beating heart from which the blood of life flowed in a poor and dirty fishing village. called Tampa Town, turning it into a modern town of brick and stone whose name was familiar to people across the country.


Vicente Martinez Ybor got off a steamboat in Tampa Town one day in September 1885. He had come to the area to find a possible site for a cigar factory. He had a lucrative cigar-making business in Cuba for 12 years, until Cuba revolted against Spanish rule. Ybor, who fled his native Valencia at the age of 14 to escape compulsory military service in Spain, sympathized with the Cuban rebels. When it was discovered in 1869 that he was secretly funding their cause, he had escaped arrest by fleeing to Key West.

In Key West, he opened his second cigar factory, employing his fellow Cuban expatriates. Ybor flourished in Key West. In fact, over the next 20 years, Key West became the largest cigar producer in the United States. By 1885, however, Ybor had become restless. Social unrest, combined with the distribution costs associated with water isolation from the rest of the United States, sent him on a quest to find a more suitable place to improve his profit and loss margin.

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He preferred Galveston, Texas, until a friend advised him to investigate the Tampa Bay area. The region’s depressed prices, humid subtropical climate (perfect for moistening tobacco leaves), and the construction of the new rail line from Henry Plant in Florida to Tampa made Tampa Bay the better choice. Ybor has started negotiations for about 40 acres of swamp northeast of the small village of Tampa Town. The deal was unsuccessful, and Ybor, willing to look elsewhere, was awaiting his steamboat connection to Galveston when the five members of the Tampa Board of Trade docked him. Long story short, he returned to the landowner and the deal, with a $ 4,000 grant from the Board of Trade, was done.


Arguably, Tampa’s reputation as a ‘cigar town’ began in 1886. That year, Martinez Ybor opened his first temporary cigar factory and, within six months, produced one million cigars. hand rolled.

He also laid the foundation for the construction of the city of Ybor.


Ybor was an entrepreneur and a visionary businessman. His vision was to control his labor costs by meeting all the needs of the Cuban and Spanish workers he brought in from Key West and, thus, to maintain a satisfied and stable workforce. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

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The first year after his arrival, he built a hundred small houses for his workers. These casitas and those that would follow did not belong to the company; on the contrary, Ybor gave his employees the option of owning their own homes by selling them the homes at cost and interest-free, allowing his workers to pay them off with small payroll deductions.

Ybor laid the infrastructure of cobblestone streets, designed on a grid system, and city services for Ybor City, but rather than owning the city (as extortionist capitalists did at the time), he proposed his land for sale to encourage small entrepreneurs to build their own businesses. Among other amenities and service companies, he would himself build an ice plant, a gas company, an insurance company, a streetcar line from Ybor City to Tampa and, wisely, a brewery.

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As early as 1887, the Tampa Board of Trade recognized the value of the town of Martinez Ybor; in collusion with the state legislature and despite vigorous objections from Ybor himself, the city of Tampa brought Ybor City into its fold through annexation.

By 1888, construction of the permanent Ybor cigar factory was completed. Its three floors of solid brick, occupying the space of a full city block, made it the largest cigar factory in the world.


In addition to the skilled tabaqueros (tobacco workers) and torcederos (cigar rollers) of Key West, the Ybor factory began to attract Sicilian immigrants from the sugar cane plantations of Louisiana and Central Florida, who have first found employment with him as an unskilled laborer. Jewish families from Romania and China came next, seeking employment in the rapidly expanding service and retail companies around the cigar industry. Later, they, the Sicilian and German immigrants would open their own businesses to serve the growing community.

Ybor was smart enough to encourage other cigar makers to open their doors in Tampa, knowing that the more businesses the area could attract, the faster the city would develop and prosper. Ybor understood that the more everyone, especially the working class, prospered, the more his many businesses would profit.

And so it was. When Martinez Ybor died in 1896, not all of the city’s treasury was enough to cash in its many businesses and real estate properties.

The very model of America’s free enterprise ideal, Ybor’s encouragement of competition brought thousands of other Cuban immigrants to rival cigar factories that would develop western Tampa, further expanding the city, its people and its wealth.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Tampa was the “cigar capital of the world”. Before 1890, it made tens of millions of cigars each year, and by the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of millions.

In less than 15 years, Tampa was, by 1900, one of the largest cities in Florida with a population of nearly 16,000 and growing rapidly until in 1930 it exceeded 100,000. In 1885 , Port Tampa had collected a total of $ 683 in export and import duties for the livestock and citrus it shipped; Ten years later, export and import duties totaled over $ 625,000, owed almost entirely to imports of Cuban tobacco and the export of cigars made in Tampa.


The stock market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed effectively killed the Tampa cigar industry. In other words, the goose that laid the golden eggs of Tampa has starved to death. Consumers began to smoke cheap cigarettes and cigar factories laid off workers; some closed. Those who survived only did so by mechanizing the process of hand-rolling cigars, so thousands of skilled rollers were made redundant. After World War II, the veterans did not return to their hometown of Ybor because there was no work. For nearly three decades, the town of Ybor gradually emptied and deteriorated until, in the 1970s, only a few businesses remained.


And then in the 1980s, as so often happens in disadvantaged urban areas, artists arrived. In their eyes, the old empty buildings were charming. And not expensive. So they moved in and commerce, in the form of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, began to return to Seventh Avenue, the “main street” of the town of Ybor.

Since 2000, the city of Tampa has invested a lot of money in developing Ybor for tourists; old brick buildings have been renovated into retail stores, restaurants and bars; historic buildings, such as the Centro Español social club and the Ferlita bakery, have been restored and function today as a shopping and cinema complex, and as the Ybor City Museum and State Park, respectively ; on vacant lots, new condominiums and apartments, hotels and head office buildings have increased.


Maybe most people think of Ybor City as nothing more than some sort of historic theme park, a tourist attraction in a cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers. The Tampans know better.

In 2014, the city, in coordination with the state and with federal funding, completed construction of the I-4 / Selman Expressway connector, in large part, to divert large semi-trucks and other heavy vehicles from the city of ‘Ybor. With this $ 487 million project, the city of Tampa is protecting its heart, Ybor City, the only neighborhood on the West Coast of Florida to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

It is also the only city in the South to have been almost entirely populated and owned by immigrants, and that is all its charm. The square mile heart of downtown Ybor City continues to attract people and money to the city of Tampa today. Tourists are drawn to its history, its music, its Spanish New Orleans-style vibe, embodied by the 1905 Spanish Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant and itself a National Historic Landmark, and, of course. , by the small storefronts where the cigars rollers demonstrate their skills. Where you can still buy and smoke branded Cuban seed-based cigars – Macanudos and Kristoffs, Coronas, Maduros, Habanos – with Arturo Fuentes, La Faraonas, Davidoffs, Perdomos, Gherkas, El Padrons, Rocky Patels…

The aromas of fine tobacco that escape from the cigar bars are in themselves worth the detour.

Cynthia A. Williams ([email protected])

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