Ybor City is located just north of downtown Tampa, Florida. The area was one of the first industrial sectors in the state of Florida, and was incorporated into Tampa in 1887. The original business was cigar manufacturing, which was brought over by the large influx of Cuban immigrants. The cultural diversity is one of the primary influences that shaped the city and remains important today. There are many interesting aspects surrounding the history of the city that not only touch on the rise of capitalism, immigration, and the American dream; but also the dark side. Organized crime permeated the city from its inception all the way through the 1950’s.
Ybor City cigars are the reason for the original rise of the area and led large economic gains throughout surrounding areas. The original cigar baron of the area was Vicente Martinez Ybor, who hailed from Spain and then Cuba before coming to Tampa to open his cigar factory. The main advantages that led him to the area were a close and active port, a willing workforce, and the building of a railroad line by Henry Plant. In the peak years of the city from 1900 until about 1929, cigar production was in the hundreds of millions annually. This lasted until the Great Depression hit and the cigar manufacturing business went into decline because of the inability of Americans to afford luxury items. The city underwent many changes, mostly to the residential area, as the building of Interstate 4 took some of the residential zones away to make room for the highway. Redevelopment began in the 1980’s and continues today, making the city as beautiful and vibrant as ever.
The cultural diversity of Ybor City was mostly Latin based in the very early development years. But, by the early 20th Century there was a heavy influx of Cubans, Germans, Jewish, Italians, and Spanish flooding the streets. The predominately Latin population led to a strong influence on the area’s cuisine and architecture. One of the examples of this is the Columbia Restaurant in the heart of Ybor, which is well over 100 years old and is the oldest Spanish restaurant in the United States. The architecture made up of brick buildings, lampposts, and brick streets give the feeling of being transported back to the 1920’s.
Some of the history is not all facts that Tampa residents may want to remember, but the organized crime background is still very interesting. The bulk of organized crime was a gambling, the most popular of which was a lottery-style game named “Bolita” meaning “little ball” in Spanish. Gambling was extremely rampant in the early development of Ybor and ran without consequence because of widespread political corruption. Federal intervention led to the elimination of most of the political corruption in the 1950’s.