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Reading 1: The History of Ybor City
Ybor City, a section of the large metropolitan area of Tampa, Florida, owes its beginning to three Spaniards who came to the "New World" in the 19th century: Gavino Gutierrez, Vicente Martinez Ybor, and Ignacio Haya. Ybor immigrated to Cuba in 1832, at the age of 14. He worked as a clerk in a grocery store, then as a cigar salesman, and in 1853 he started his own cigar factory in Havana. Labor unrest, the high tariff on Cuban cigars, and the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1868 caused Ybor to move his plant and his workers to Key West, Florida. While his business there was successful, labor problems and the lack of a good fresh water supply and a transportation system for distributing his products led him to consider moving his business to a new location.
Gavino Gutierrez came to the United States from Spain in 1868. He settled in New York City, but he traveled oftento Cuba, to Key West, and to the small town of Tampa, Florida, searching for exotic fruits such as mangoes and guavas. During a visit to Key West in 1884, he convinced Ybor and Ignacio Haya, a cigar factory owner from New York who was visiting Ybor, to travel to Tampa to investigate its potential for cigar manufacturing. That same year Henry Bradley Plant, a businessman from Connecticut, had completed a rail line into Tampa and was in the process of improving the port facility for his shipping lines. These methods of transportation would make it easy to import tobacco from Cuba as well as distribute finished products. Tampa also offered the warm, humid climate necessary for cigar manufacturing, and a freshwater well.
After visiting Tampa in 1885, both Haya and Ybor decided to build cigar factories in the area. Gutierrez surveyed an area two miles from Tampa, even drawing up a map to show where streets might run. Ybor purchased 40 acres of land and began to construct a factory. He continued to manufacture cigars in Key West as well, until a fire destroyed his factory there in 1886. Afterwards, Ybor spent all of his time on his operations in the Tampa area. At age 68, Ybor began developing a company town "with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners."1
There had been Spanish and Cuban fishermen in the Tampa region before Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, but the city had grown slowly. As late as 1880, the population was only about 700. In 1887 when the city of Tampa incorporated Ybor City into the municipality, the population increased to more than 3,000. By 1890 the population of Tampa was about 5,500. Most residents made their living from cigar making, while the occupations of many other workers revolved around the cigar trade. For example, some workers made the attractive wooden cigar boxes in which the hand-rolled cigars were shipped and which, in most American homes, came to be used for holding keepsakes. Other workers made cigar bands, pieces of paper around each cigar denoting its brand, which once were collected by children all over the country.
Ybor City developed as a multiethnic community where English was a second language for many of its citizens. Cubans made up the largest group, about 15 percent of them were African Cubans. Next were the Spaniards, who came in large numbers after 1890. Together these two groups dominated the cigar industry and set the cultural tone for the community. Ybor City also attracted Italians, mostly Sicilians, who had first come to work in the sugar cane fields in Louisiana. Some Italians worked in the cigar industry, but many operated restaurants and small businesses or farmed for a living. Most became bilingual in Italian and Spanish. Other immigrants included Germans, Romanian Jews, and a small number of Chinese. The Germans contributed to the cigar industry through their superb cigar box art. The lithographs incorporated into their cover designs were considered the best in the world. Romanian Jews and Chinese immigrants worked mainly in retail businesses and in service trades.
Ybor City eventually outproduced Havana as a manufacturing center of quality cigars. Both Ybor and Haya offered plant sites and other incentives to lure other major cigar factory owners away from Cuba and Key West. There were also hundreds of small cigar making shops. By 1900 Tampa's Ybor City had become known as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Nearby West Tampa also profited from Ybor City's success. By 1895 it had 10 cigar factories of its own, and it also supported additional box making and label printing factories.
Ybor City continued to grow and prosper through the 1920s and into the 1930s. Several factors soon converged to bring about hard times, however. Cigarette consumption began to grow, a major depression struck the nation, and improved machinery for rolling cigars began to produce a product comparable in workmanship to the hand-rolled variety. At first, these machineproduced cigars could find little market because the hand-rolled "Havana" type cigar had such a good reputation. Then the producers of the machine-made cigars launched a notorious "spit" campaign. In their advertisements they falsely claimed that human saliva played a major role in the production of hand-manufactured cigars.
The combined effect of the "spit campaign," the Great Depression, and the growing popularity of cigarettes finally changed Ybor City. Large factories either mechanized or went out of business. As machines took over for people, many of Ybor City's residents moved elsewhere in Tampa to find work. Between 1930 and 1940, some Cubans left the city and returned to their homeland.
In the 1960s Ybor City was split apart by an urban renewal project. Seventy acres of the old city were leveled, including several hundred houses, one mutual aid society building, and a fire station. An interstate highway took up part of the leveled ground, but the rest was never redeveloped because federal funds and private investments did not materialize. This destruction did have one positive effect, however. Years later, it prompted a number of civic organizations to band together to preserve what remained of the city's historic buildings and ethnic heritage.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why did Vicente Martinez Ybor leave Cuba to start a cigar factory in Key West, Florida? What factors caused him to relocate a second time to Tampa, Florida?
2. Have any industries moved into or out of your community recently? What factors caused them to do so?
3. How was Gavino Gutierrez influential in establishing Ybor City?
4. What was the approximate percent of growth in Tampa from 1880 to 1890? How does this demonstrate the impact of the cigar industry on Tampa? What would be some of the positive and negative impacts if your community grew at a similar rate over the next 10 years?
5. What factors caused Ybor City's cigar-making industry to decline?
Compiled from James H. Charleton, "Ybor City Historic District" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; Diane D. Greer, L. Glenn Westfall, and Gary Englehardt, "Ybor City Historic District" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1974; Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta, The Immigrant World of Ybor City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 63-69; L. Glenn Westfall, "Latin Entrepreneurs and the Birth of Ybor City," Tampa Bay History 7, no. 2 (1985): 6-11; and information provided by Robin Gonzalez, Education Coordinator, Tampa Preservation, Inc. 1 Westfall, 11.