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American Latino Heritage
Ybor City Historic District
At the turn of the 20th century, nowhere in the United States was as famous for its cigars as Tampa’s Ybor City, which was once known as the “Cigar Capital of the World.” The Ybor City Historic District is a National Historic Landmark located northeast of Tampa’s downtown. The district contains more than 950 historic buildings and structures built during its peak industrial years. Ybor City’s vibrant character, preserved best in the 7th Avenue Commercial Strip, is defined by the community’s blend of cultures from European, Asian, and Cuban immigrants who settled there to support the region’s once-booming cigar industry brought to Tampa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was new American tariffs on imported cigars and political trouble in Cuba that compelled Cuban cigar manufacturers to build factories in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century. One of these manufacturing titans was Vicente Martínez e Ybor, who was born in Valencia, Spain, and lived in Spanish Cuba for 15 years before immigrating to the United States. While in Cuba, he founded the “Prince of Wales” brand of cigars and achieved some success there, but Ybor supported Cuban independence and was therefore unable to stay in Spanish Cuba. He moved his factories to the United States in the late 1860s, first to Key West and New York City. Though his cigar factories were in the U.S., Ybor imported his tobacco from Cuba and hired fellow Cuban exiles to work in his factories. In 1885, Martínez e Ybor and Ignacio Haya, a friend and manufacturing peer, formed a partnership to develop a cigar-manufacturing town near Tampa, Florida.
Tampa was an ideal location for Martínez e Ybor’s factories because of its warm, humid climate and its close proximity to Cuba, which was Martínez e Ybor’s preferred source of labor and tobacco. When Martínez e Ybor and Haya purchased undeveloped land to build their planned community, Tampa’s population was around 700. Tampa eventually annexed Ybor City in 1887, but the Hispanic factory town kept a separate identity. In 1886, Martínez e Ybor and his manufacturing colleagues oversaw the construction of the first 176 worker houses in Ybor City, which became home to some of the 3,000 people already handcrafting cigars in their new factories. Of the first wave of Cuban immigrants, 15% were Afro-Cuban. By 1890, Ybor City’s population had doubled from the first year and was around 6,000. Though many of the residents were Hispanic, immigrating from Spain or Spanish Cuba, there were also Italian, German, Rumanian Jewish, and Chinese immigrants in Ybor City.
Ybor City’s concentration of diverse ethnic groups was uncommon in the American South and added to the unique character of the town. While most of the Hispanic residents worked in the cigar factories, these immigrants also produced the beautiful boxes that held their cigars, operated small shops, and supported the service industries. Ybor City’s residents formed ethnic social clubs and benevolent organizations, which offered their members cooperative medical plans and charitable services. The largest Hispanic clubs in Tampa between 1890 and 1920 were the Centro Asturiano, Circulo Cubano, El Centro Español, and La Union Marti-Maceo. Because of its proximity to Cuba and large Cuban immigrant population, the town naturally became a center for Cuban exiles and political activity. José Martí, a Cuban revolutionary leader, visited Ybor City before the 1895 Cuban War for Independence to gather support. In the factories, readers – hired by the workers for entertainment – read from patriotic newspapers and spread information about the political situation.
By 1900, Tampa’s manufacturers produced the highest-quality hand-rolled cigars in the world, surpassing even Havana, Cuba. Other Latino cigar manufacturers joined Ybor and Haya in Tampa, including Armo, Garcial and Company; Trujillo and Benemelis; and Arguilles, Lopez and Brothers. At the hand-rolled cigar factories, cigar crafting was an art. Ybor City’s skilled factory workers rolled cigars by hand in 36 shapes and sizes. Tampa’s cigar manufacturing peaked in the 1920s. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Great Depression and mechanization hurt Tampa’s cigar industry. Only small shops were able to continue the handcrafting tradition. A quarter of immigrant whites and half of the city’s Afro-Cuban population left Tampa between 1930 and 1940. Even when Tampa’s industries recovered after World War II, Ybor City continued to decline and fell into an economic slump. An urban renewal project in 1965, which demolished a large part of Ybor City, sparked a local movement to preserve Ybor City’s unique culture and important buildings.
The Ybor City Historic District is located northeast of downtown Tampa and contains nearly a thousand historic resources. Most of the historic buildings and structures were constructed between 1886 and World War I. These include the businesses, churches, social clubs, factories, and public buildings used by Ybor City’s residents at the height of Tampa’s hand-rolled cigar industry.
The Ybor City archway, just east of the 7th Avenue and Nick Nuccio Parkway intersection, welcomes visitors to the heart of the historic district: the 7th Avenue Commercial Strip. The American Planning Association named this strip one of America’s Greatest Streets in 2008 and it is a tourist-friendly area that stretches 11 blocks from the Parkway to 26th Street. Seventh Avenue’s architecture reflects Ybor City’s Spanish, Cuban, and Italian heritage. Most of the buildings are blond or red brick and many have wrought iron, second-story balconies. Significant historic buildings on 7th Avenue include three historic social clubs: the Marti-Maceo Club; L’Unione Italiana (the Italian Club); and El Centro Español. The oldest continuously operating restaurant in Ybor City, the Columbia Restaurant, and the Ritz (Rivoli) Theater, which historically served the Afro-Cuban community, are also on the 7th Avenue strip.
Nine key cigar factories survive in the district. These factories are throughout the district, located near the houses in which factory workers lived. Most are brick or stone two-to-four story buildings. Factory workers packed and shipped cigars on the first floors and manufactured the cigars on the second floors. Third floors, if the building had one, were used for blending tobacco to make brand-specific flavors. One of these surviving factories is the redbrick Ybor Factory Complex, which is located on 14th Street and takes up nearly an entire city block. A portion of the complex was the first cigar factory in Ybor City, the Ybor-Manrara Cigar Factory (1886). The only large factory still producing cigars in Ybor City is the E. Regensberg & Sons, also known as S. Fernandez and Co., on 16th Street.
Apart from the factories and beyond the 7th Avenue corridor are Ybor City’s public buildings and residences. The largest concentration of historic houses built before World War I lies between 4th and 6th Avenues and 15th and 22nd Streets. Some of these houses date back to the late 19th century. Most Ybor City residents lived in a single or multi-family house, and those who worked in the cigar industry lived in company housing close to their factory. The residences are typically wood-frame, gable-roofed buildings. Ybor City’s practicing Roman Catholic residents have attended the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on 11th Avenue since 1891. The church, a Romanesque Revival building rebuilt in 1937, offers sermons in English, Spanish, and Italian. Two historic schools are part of the district: the St. Joseph’s Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the V.M. Ybor Elementary School. St. Joseph’s, built in 1927 and no longer in operation, is a stucco-on-brick building located near the church, on 11th Avenue. The historic two-story brick elementary school on 15th Avenue, constructed in 1911, was one of the community’s first public schools.
Ybor City was an urban slum by the mid-20th century, but heritage preservation and economic development efforts in the 1980s revitalized the historic “city within a city.” The district’s commercial corridor offers shopping, museums, restaurants, hotels, and beautiful public parks. Information about guided historic and ghost walking tours can be accessed through the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.