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Ybor City Walking Tours Explore the Historic Streets of Ybor City on a Walking Tour Back in Time

Cubans and cigars

Driving in Tampa is like trying to navigate a bowl of tangled spaghetti.The Riverwalk, which links major museums, hotels and the convention center along the Hillsborough River, is much more manageable and pleasurable. But it’s a work in progress and will abandon you without warning. The most stress-freemode of travel is the electric streetcar, a network of trolleys that bump along a 2.4-mile track from Ybor City to downtown.

The 11-stop, J-shaped route reveals multiple landscapes, such as the old salty port; Channelside Bay Plaza, a vibrant entertainment complex; and a shiny forest of high-rises. One of the most historic sections, worthy of a long layover, is Ybor City.

“Ybor City has always been unique,” said tour guide Lonnie Herman. “It’s like being in a small town in a growing city.” Lonnie, dapper in a straw fedora, has been leading tours of the neighborhood for three years. We gathered by the statue of Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the perfect opening to the first chapter of Ybor City.

In1885, the Spanish cigar-manufacturer came to Tampa via Cuba and Key West. He built Ybor City as a corporate town that, at its peak in 1927, had 230 cigar factories with 12,000 cigar workers who rolled just under 600 million cigars, topping Cuba’s output. Before the Depression and cigarettes spoiled the party, Ybor City was the cigar capital of the world.

Lonnie showed us how Ybor the man created Ybor the home for countless immigrant families from Cuba, Italy and other lands. He constructed rows of two-bedroom casitas for the employees, all first-time owners. Miami attracts heaps of attention with Little Havana and its Cuban American activists, but Ybor City can one-up — actually two-up — its southern neighbor. Between 1893 and 1895, revolutionary Jose Marti visited the neighborhood 25 times, rallying the Cuban residents to overthrow the Spanish occupation of the island.

On a wrought-iron staircase now housed in a Havana museum, Marti delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of 3,000 that spurred the revolution. After his remarks, he returned to his guesthouse and wrote a secret note, which he wrapped in a cigar. His lieutenant delivered the stogie-scented orders to the freedom fighters in the Cuban hills. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Lonnie described this drama in the Jose Marti Park, “the only Cuban- owned land in the United States.” A Cuban-American attorney manages the parcel, which features a white statue of Marti and clumps of soil from the island’s various regions. “He hopes to one day hand the key over to a free Cuba,” Lonnie said of the caretaker. Ybor City’s cigar and Cuban heyday is over: Only one cigar factory exists today, and Italians outnumber Cubans. But the area’s spirit is stubborn: Not only does it refuse to leave, it’s also preparing for a comeback.

After the tour, Lonnie led me to King Corona, a cafe, bar and cigar shop where men smoked fat ones and sipped cafe con leche at outdoor tables. “Ybor City was like a microcosm of what the United States is. It was a true melting pot,” King Corona owner Don Barco said between bites of a Cuban sandwich.“We are now entering a second golden age.”

Smelling lightly of cigar and buzzed on coffee, I headed to the streetcar stop to catch a ride downtown. I sprang for the $5 all-day pass, so that I could effortlessly travel between now and then, the past and the future of Tampa.

sachsa@washpost.com

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