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    Ybor reincarnation

    The historic district pins its hopes for a revival on Centro Ybor after decades of ups and downs. And the city looks to it for an economic boost.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000

    [Times photo: Chris Schneider]
    Awash in the neon lights of Ybor City, Ashley Ehlerz, left, and Alex Self, both 18, talk in front of Club Hedo on Seventh Avenue while waiting in line to enter Thursday.
    TAMPA -- Ybor City has been to hell and back.

    A magazine in the 1950s lumped it and Tampa together as "the hell hole of the Gulf Coast." Now, after decades of ups and downs, a near-total wipeout by bulldozers, the establishment of an artist colony and an influx of bars and nightclubs, comes Centro Ybor. The $45-million open-air complex with upscale restaurants, trendy shops and a 20-screen theater debuts Thursday.

    In many ways, the future of the historic district is riding on Centro Ybor's success or failure.

    "It is the beginning of kick ass," says Ferdie Pacheco, famed fight doctor, Ybor City native and author of Ybor City Chronicles.

    The journey has been emotional and still is, especially for those who, like Pacheco, loved what Ybor City once was.

    Even the lack of a Cuban sandwich shop at Centro Ybor stirs passions. "A crime," Pacheco calls it.

    Why so much emotion over such a small part of Tampa?

    "Ybor City helped put us -- Tampa -- on the map," says Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. It helped turn a cow town into a thriving port city.

    More than a century later, Ybor City is once again seen as an economic engine for the entire city.

    Other big projects are on the way: luxury apartments, offices for dot-com companies, townhomes. "We don't have much time; everything we want to do, we have to do now," said Greco, 67, whose political career spans some of Ybor City's lowest points.

    But some caution is in order, Greco says. "We certainly don't want to erase the past."

    In 1886, Spanish cigar manufacturer Don Vicente Martinez Ybor'sKey West factory burned down. A friend suggested he consider relocating to a sleepy settlement on Florida's Gulf Coast. He found a frontier wilderness, where he built an immigrant oasis, the Ybor City everyone recalls so fondly today.

    It was the second-largest immigrant settlement in the South, after New Orleans, and home to Cubans, Germans, Italians and Spaniards.

    Social clubs flourished, including the two-story, red brick Centro Espanol, the cornerstone of the Centro Ybor project. It was home to the first health maintenance organizations in the country, the immigrant mutual aid societies, where members could get low-cost health care.

    Streetcars ran up and down Seventh Avenue. Neighbors knew each other. Everything they needed was there. There was no need to go downtown.

    The relationship between Tampa and Ybor City has not always been loving.

    Ybor City was an industrial community in a rural state. A Latin enclave in a Cracker town, Catholics surrounded by Protestants. Cubans, Italians and Spaniards had darker skin and radical political views.

    But Ybor City also was a money machine for Tampa. As long as the Latins worked, everything was fine. But as soon as there was a strike, the city's leadership treated the workers as children who eeded to be governed, said Gary Mormino, University of South Florida historian and author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City.

    The relationship was sometimes violent. In 1910 two Italian cigarmakers were hanged in West Tampa in one of the city's most notorious lynchings. Postcards of the lynchings were printed the next day, just to show who was in charge, Mormino said.

    These children needed to be Americanized, the city leaders thought.

    Soldiers returning from World War II didn't want to resettle in Ybor City. They had seen the world beyond their little village. Like the rest of America, they headed for the suburbs.

    Besides, cigars were going out of style, and cigar workers were replaced by machines. The factories began to close. Stores were shuttered, houses neglected. The slow decline had begun.

    Corruption played a role, too, Mormino said, but which did the corrupting -- Tampa or Ybor -- depends on whom you ask. Tampa had a reputation for political corruption. Illegal bolita, a numbers game, was big in Ybor.

    The greatest shame, though, came in 1950, when a U.S. Senate investigation of organized crime was held in Tampa. "This was humiliating," said Mormino. "Now, we are a national disgrace and a joke."

    Ybor City has been trying to reclaim its glorious past ever since.

    Mayors with roots in Ybor City did what they thought was best. First, Nick Nuccio. Later, Dick Greco.

    The 1960s brought urban renewal. By then, Ybor City was considered a slum, by outsiders anyway. Shotgun houses once home to cigar workers were seen as blights on the landscape.

    About 55 blocks were leveled. Even Greco's great-grandmother had to leave her home. Money ran out before new homes could be rebuilt.

    "In hindsight, it looks like a colossal mistake just to bring in a bulldozer and tear it down," Mormino said.

    "Urban removal," Sylvia "Nootchie" Vega Smith calls it. Her grandfather was president of Centro Espanol when it was built.

    Many people were involved in the destruction, said Mormino. "The city certainly had blood on its hands," he said. But so did the federal government and local Latin leaders, some of whom made money in the process.

    Greco helped persuade Hillsborough Community College to buy up vacant land, preventing an influx of low-income housing.

    Once a lively village, Ybor City became a wasteland. Yet the question of how to put it back on the map lingered. There were many bright ideas. In the 1960s, homebuilder Jim Walter proposed a medieval Spanish city with bloodless bullfighting.

    Disney was transforming Orlando at the time, recalls Greco, who supported the idea. "Well, we would have our own tourist attraction," he said.

    But first, the Legislature would have to legalize bloodless bullfighting. An exhibition was held in Bradenton. The bull went berserk, and a trooper had to shoot it with a long-range rifle.

    So much for bloodless bullfighting.

    So much for Ybor City.

    * * *

    By the 1970s, young artists had discovered Ybor City. "Ybor was romantic, Bohemian, no air conditioning, very poor. We drank the cheapest wine," local artist David Audet told the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. "This was the nadir of Ybor City. No one other than the artists hung out there. You could look down the street on a Saturday night and you would see our local thief or prostitute lurking to the side."

    The annual Artists and Writers Ball, begun in 1978, inspired Guavaween in 1985. The Halloween fundraiser for the Playmakers, an Ybor City theater group which has since disbanded, and for the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, Guavaween soon grew into a sprawling, raunchy event drawing 100,000 people.

    Ybor was slowly coming back to life. Places such as the Castle and Ovo opened. Regular outdoor concerts started drawingyoung urban professionals, who discovered the secret enclave the artists already knew. The crowds encouraged new businesses to open.

    The city decided bars and nightclubs were the answer. The City Council loosened regulations and new businesses soon filled the empty, historic buildings along Seventh Avenue, saving them from neglect and deterioration. For the artists who had helped revive the neighborhood, the noise and drunkenness were too much to live with. So were rising rents.

    The bars came. The artists left. Ybor City was changing.

    Enter Yaromir Steiner.

    The meeting between Steiner and Greco was arranged by Barbara Guyton, who owns substantial property in Ybor City. She had visited CocoWalk, the outdoor shopping and dining complex that revitalized the Coconut Grove area of Miami, and had been impressed by the work of Steiner.

    Could Steiner do the same for Ybor?

    Born in Turkey, educated in Toulouse, France, Steiner built his reputation on developing and designing outdoor, urban entertainment centers.

    But Steiner would have to succeed on a larger scale than the many local people who had planted seeds of development in Ybor City.

    There was Harris Mullen, the magazine publisher who in the 1970s converted Vicente Ybor's cigar factory into an indoor shopping and restaurant complex. In the late 1980s, the Kahana family breathed new life into the rundown El Pasaje. The Gonzmart family hung in through good times and bad with its venerable Columbia Restaurant.

    The pace of change has been startling. The results are equally so.

    The cantina in the historic Centro Espanol building, where the men used to play dominoes, will now be occupied by a housewares shop that sells scented candles, linen and gifts for pets.

    At the same time, the 88-year-old Centro Espanol building is looking better than ever. It was boarded up before developers arrived, "invaded by cobwebs and pigeons," said Vega Smith, who worked toward preservation.

    "There's a lot of history in Ybor, and it shouldn't be forgotten," said Rafael Martinez-Ybor, the great-grandson of Don Vicente Martinez Ybor.

    What's next?

    Some worry that Ybor City will be tamed by blandness. Bikers and Goths, rednecks and yuppies -- it's been an eclectic mix for years. But others say it's time to strike a balance and make room for an older crowd with money to spend.

    Chain stores are looking along Seventh, beyond Centro, said Fernando Noriega, the city's development administrator. Big-name retailers and restaurants want in on the action.

    "Why isn't there a Gap?" asked Mormino. "That is the direction America is moving. It's not that Ybor City is unique."

    - Babita Persaud can be reached at (813) 226-3322 or

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