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Ah, for the Ybor of old

Published June 6, 2003

These days, Ybor City is definitely not "my town."

Used to be, though. Not that long ago either. From 1992 to 1996, I owned a store in Ybor called Blue Chair Music.

Ybor City was magical in 1992. You could walk Seventh Avenue and see artists painting in little studios. Amazing local bands played in courtyards. Buskers performed on the sidewalk. You could step into a bookstore and start a discussion about Bukowski or Rimbaud with total strangers and be pretty sure they'd be conversant on the topic.

Or you could just appreciate the mix of people who lived, worked and played within a few square blocks. Old Latinos who had lived in Ybor their whole lives. Street people. Recent immigrants who barely spoke English. Struggling actors who lived in tiny apartments behind tailor shops. Kids with green hair and skateboards who were just starting to figure out what independence and creativity were all about. Everyone got along.

A friend and I wanted to be part of that, even enhance it if we could. We rented a storefront, which we heard had been home to some kind of illicit gambling operation, and created Blue Chair.

It needed a lot of prep work, and a whole lot of local artists and musicians stopped by to help, without being asked. They worked hard, and they didn't get paid. I didn't even know who some of them were. Still don't.

The first weekend we were open, dozens of local bands, plus a few national acts, agreed to perform in our store, for free, just to help us attract some attention. For two full days we were packed. We sold so much stuff that we hardly had anything left to sell the following week.

For a year, maybe two, after that, Ybor City seemed to get better and better. Every business that opened, every venture someone started, seemed to fill a niche that needed filling. The Castle, which was just a watering hole before it became a club, was the perfect late-night gathering spot for the Bohemian arts crowd.

There was a great little Mexican restaurant on a beautiful courtyard with a fountain. An artists' collective took over a floor of an old cigar factory. A group called Hillsborough Moving Company staged some of the best theater this area had ever seen, including a surrealistic history of Ybor by Obie Award-winning playwright Mac Wellman.

Somebody who lived in Seventh would draw these great cartoons about what was happening in Ybor and paste them outside a vacant storefront.

Poetry was everywhere. Three Birds Bookstore introduced poetry slams to Tampa, and quickly became nationally known for the quality of its poets. The Thirsty Ear Poetry Series became a weekly event, and drew lots of people who actually thought listening to poets read their work was a fun thing to do.

At Blue Chair, we obviously concentrated on music. Our stock was mostly stuff that people couldn't find elsewhere. We carried a lot of independent and minor-label CDs, music by just about every local band and a lot of very strange old LPs. National music magazines wrote about us. So did an alternative travel guide.

The atmosphere of community and cooperation was delicious. If you couldn't get away from your store, you'd call a restaurant and they'd bring your lunch, and you'd return the dishes later. If you needed quarters, you'd give $20 to a customer and he'd go get change. A bunch of us paid a guy to feed all the parking meters before they expired so no one would get a ticket.

I guess it all worked a little too well. By late 1993, Ybor started to draw attention from corporations and people with lots of money but no appreciation for what gave the neighborhood it soul. They bought the buildings and raised the rents. They were openly hostile to the artistic and activist businesses, and threatened by the odd-looking kids who loved Ybor.

Almost overnight, the vibe changed from "all for one and one for all" to "us against them."

The big business people, of course, won. The rest of us were too naive, idealistic and maybe ignorant to put up a decent fight. The city sided with the money. The cops hassled the guy who fed the parking meters and made him stop.

Around that time, City Council held a hearing about Ybor. One of the old-time merchants, a man who had been born in Ybor City and was maybe in his 70s, compared Ybor to a symphony. There were sweet violins, blaring trumpets, mellow oboes and brash cymbals. They worked together and made something far more beautiful than they could make apart. Now, he said, some instruments were drowning out the others.

Ybor City had survived the bad times, he said. He wasn't sure it could survive the good times.

I hardly ever go to Ybor anymore. A lot of people like it, I know. Good for them. But for me, when I walk past the interchangeable corporate bars and chain restaurants, it's all cacophony, just noise.

I listen hard, but I can no longer hear that magical symphony.

- Marty Clear, a frequent contributor to City Times, is a freelance writer who lives in Tampa.

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