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A look at Ybor City's history in the midst of urban renewal

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Several archway lights hang above a busy road. On either side of the street are businesses and parked cars.
City of Tampa
Ybor City's iconic archway lights hang above Seventh Avenue.

While a recent shooting in Ybor City may put the Tampa neighborhood in the spotlight, Ybor has a long and rich history and was instrumental in shaping the city of Tampa. The cigar industry was lured from revolutionary Cuba and became home to the city's economic and power base.

Sarah McNamara is the author of a new book called "Ybor City, Crucible of the Latina South." She's an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University.

In the book, McNamara explores how cross-border exchanges over three generations influenced what Ybor and Tampa would become. It's also personal to McNamara, whose family is from Ybor City.

"I grew up inundated with the culture of Ybor," says McNamara.

"I write in the book that my grandmother wanted to be sure that my sister and I knew and understood what it meant to be of and from Ybor City, and that it was a form of Latinidad that we carried with us. And we do."

In the late 1800s, says McNamara, cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor was looking for somewhere to relocate his cigar manufacturing base from Key West. He settled on Tampa, which had a rail line, a good climate and where Spanish speaking workers, skilled in the Cuban method of hand rolling cigars, were not hard to find.

The cigar industry "completely remade the city of Tampa," says McNamara.

"The way that I describe it in the book is that it was a settlement of sweaty confederates, that there weren't many people who were living in the city of Tampa."

From 1880 to 1900, the population grew from 720 to 15,839.

The thriving cigar industry and population boom driven by immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy, also changed the political and cultural dynamic of Tampa.

"You have an immigrant population with an unbelievable amount of economic power, because the Tampa economy doesn't operate without them. And the important thing is that they know it," says McNamara.

"So they're willing to walk off the job, they're willing to sustain strikes for long periods of time, they're willing to go back to Cuba if they need to wait things out."

McNamara says the workers were kept informed and politically engaged by lectors: people who the workers themselves hired to read aloud on the factory floor. Thanks to the lector, "you had people who knew who Tolstoy was, you had people who knew great works of opera, you had people who were engaged in politics beyond their backyard, as well as those who were ardently aware of what was going on around them."

Andrea Alfonso McNamara and her daughter, historian Sarah McNamara, smile as they stand side by side under an oak tree.
Matthew Peddie, WUSF
Sarah McNamara (r) and her mother, Andrea Alfonso McNamara. McNamara's family is from Ybor City, and she says her grandmother, Norma Alfonso "wanted to be sure that my sister and I knew and understood what it meant to be of in from Ybor City".

The book also charts the role of women organizers like Luisa Moreno, who pushed for workers rights and protests against fascism. Many cigar workers lost their jobs as the cigar industry began to decline in the 1930s, says McNamara.

"And so all of a sudden, the primary people who were in unions were women, and they needed a woman to organize them. And Luisa Moreno is the answer to that question."

In the final part of the book, McNamara addresses urban renewal and what that means for Ybor.

"I think Ybor City is in the midst of massive redefinition right now, and I hope that it's also a moment that it remembers what it was," says McNamara.

"The important thing for us to remember about Ybor is that it's had many lives. There is the cigar industry version of Ybor City, and then by the 1960s it becomes a place that is a Black community. Once historic Black communities in Tampa have been raised and people have been displaced, it becomes an area for affordable housing. By the 1980s, it becomes a queer district and it also becomes a district for artists and for those who are seeking a haven, again because of its affordability."

McNamara's not sure if Ybor will remain affordable as Tampa continues to change.

"I think the ethos and the politics of Ybor still live, but have to figure out a way to make sure it can survive without it being priced out."

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.