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An Old Florida Melting Pot

July 2024
7min read

Visiting the Tampa area’s turn-of-the-century Cuban and Greek communities

The young man dressed in a monk’s costume chats with me as he hands out candy to children celebrating Guavaween. He works in Tampa’s Cuban community, Ybor City, in a well-stocked vintage-clothing store, and people are walking in to look for costumes for the local Latin-flavored Halloween celebration. He says that he’s disillusioned with the area, which had its start in the late 187Os as the base for a thriving handmade cigar industry and also supported many local shops. In more recent times, he tells me, Ybor City has been overtaken by some city official’s dream of turning the main strip, Seventh Avenue, into a Bourbon Street replica. For many Ybor City residents this has meant watching the slow disappearance of much of the area’s Latin heritage as shops cede their leases over to landlords who then open up raucous bars. Even Guavaween seems like not much more than a collection of hot dog and beer booths. But after spending an afternoon there, I found that Ybor City’s heritage is not gone, just somewhat obscured by the commerce that is trying to save it. The tranquil Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which has built a reputation as both a leisure and cultural center, is in some ways an ideal place for Ybor City to regain its footing.

Tampa is an international port, and because over the years it has been home to a variety of immigrant groups and wealthy entrepreneurs, Ybor City makes up only a small part of its scene. While I was there last October, I visited the small but excellent St. Petersburg Museum of History; its Walk Through Time Gallery tells the continuing story of the people of Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Pinellas , or “point of pines,” was the word the Spanish colonists used for the tree-filled land that was populated by the Tocobaga and Timucua tribes. Florida was briefly owned by the British in 1763 but then fell back into Spanish hands, and the area’s population eventually grew to include blacks escaping slavery who lived among the Seminoles, American soldiers who arrived around 1820, and an influx of Cubans, among others. Vintage ads from real estate agents like “Mitchell the Sand Man,” selling dreams of homes near sand and sea, date from Florida’s comeback years in the late 1940s. The last display in the timeline, a collection of colorful walking sticks and songbooks like “Florida My Florida,” captures the essential spirit of sunny leisure here, but all the exhibits leading up to it make the visitor aware of the impressive diversity behind the ease.

Ybor City has its own museum, housed in an old community bakery, that summons up the atmosphere of the city’s past, particularly during the cigar industry’s boom years in the 1920s. Cases display gorgeous old cigar labels and photos of shops selling Cuban groceries with small apartments above and smiling women in Spanish-style dresses posing on the street. Cigar makers were well cared for back then. Their salaries averaged fifteen to eighteen dollars a week, and they enjoyed breaks during the day and the privilege of smoking at work. Workers paid a lector twenty-five cents out of their pay to read newspapers and novels to them in Spanish. When the city founder and cigarfactory owner Don Vincente Martinez Ybor bought his land here, he set aside a portion of it for houses for his employees, and one of these single-story structures, La Casita (the little house), is preserved a block from the museum, with replicas of original furniture and a kitchen complete with a Cuban coffee-maker of the period and an ancient straw-covered bottle of Bacardi rum.

There was occasional unrest in Ybor City. The Cuban community had a longstanding resentment of the Spanish for their oppressive rule over Cuba as a colony through 1898, and Spaniards in Ybor City were generally distrusted until Cuba gained its independence. During the Spanish-American War, Spanish citizens of Tampa appealed to the government for protection from Cubans and Americans. But many different groups, including Germans and Italians, settled here in relative peace and most formed social clubs that also provided monetary and medical aid in times of need. L’Unione Italiana, a stately, columned building on Seventh Avenue and dating from 1918, is still open to members.

When the dual impact of industrialization and the Depression hit the cigar industry, Ybor City went into a decline that shut down factories and caused families to move elsewhere, leaving the community depleted, but if you stroll the city’s streets today, you will still find the pleasing flavor of the old town. Two-story buildings, some with iron balconies, line the main street; many have old advertisements for cheese and olive oil painted onto their sides. The heavily tiled, elegant Columbia Restaurant and La Tropicana Café are two successful survivors, while Tampa’s oldest restaurant, Las Novedadas (opened in 1892), now sits vacant and awaits a tenant. For some, changes are welcome. A cigar merchant tells me that although Ybor City has undergone some hard transitions, the once-deserted streets are now safer because of its new nightlife, and the renewed national interest in cigars has prompted the opening of a new Ybor City factory that will be housed in the original factory’s building. His own shop, stocked with cigars made in a Tampa factory, is busy until closing time.

Ybor City got a big boost from the cigar vogue and Tarpon Springs from a blight that hit the sponge beds of Europe.

About twenty-five miles northwest of Ybor City, another small ethnic community, Tarpon Springs, is also experiencing something of a comeback in its primary industry, sponge fishing. Sponge beds are a rarity in the United States, and this is one of the few areas where they are found. Around 1890 John K. Cheyney, a developer who was looking to promote the area, discovered sponges growing near Tarpon Springs in the Gulf of Mexico. He started a hooking operation, in which sponges were snagged from boats. Within a decade John Corcoris, a Greek sponge buyer from New York, came to do business in the area and ended up staying on when he saw how profitable Tarpon Springs could be. He sent for men from Greece, where diving for sponges was a long-established and far more efficient method than hooking. By 1936, when Tarpon Springs was recognized as the sponge capital of the world, it was also home to a growing Greek community.

In the 1940s a bacterial blight hit the Gulf of Mexico. The sponge industry in Tarpon Springs was nearly dead for two decades. By the 1970s few divers or sponge boats remained, and those that did had to go nearly a hundred miles offshore to find healthy sponges. Recovery of the Gulf beds came in the mid-1980s, and currently a blight on the Mediterranean Sea (some think it was caused by Chernobyl) has given the economy of Tarpon Springs a considerable boost.

When I visited Tarpon Springs, I sensed that people were genuinely optimistic about the sponge industry, which is the town’s pride. The sponge divers and the men who run the boats clearly love what they do and relish the Greek traditions that still flourish here. I spoke to one of the sponge-boat captains, who expressed his belief that more growth is possible here if only “energies can be properly harnessed” from the current resources. What is perhaps most amazing about the sponge-diving industry are the divers themselves, whose equipment sometimes looks similar to that which sea adventurers in Jules Verne novels wore. Most use modern-day scuba equipment, but a few rely on round copper and brass helmets with glass viewing holes—still handmade by a local, Nick Toth—each screwed onto a brass neckplate and attached to a rubber and canvas suit, with hoses up to a boat above. The diver wears shoes made of leather and iron and also has lead weights strapped to him for a total of 172 pounds, not counting his own weight. The weighted gear lets the diver walk on the ocean floor, where he searches for sponge to collect.

The sponge docks face Dodecanese Boulevard, an area modeled after a Greek waterfront village. Its white and blue buildings, winding streets, sponge shops, and numerous Greek bakeries and restaurants among the souvenir shops along the waterfront give the place a definite Mediterranean tinge.

The town of Tarpon Springs is very quiet and compact. As in Ybor City, the main streets are lined with low buildings, many of which have recently converted their top halves into apartments to draw more residents to the center of town. Everywhere are galleries, antiques stores, and old small-scale department stores, like the 1912 Faklis store and the Tarapani’s department store (one of the last independent department stores in the county). Peeking into the shops, I notice tin ceilings and brick walls in almost every one. The elegant St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, is the showpiece of Tarpon Springs. Services are given there in Greek and English, and many children in town go to after-school classes to learn Greek. One of the area’s biggest ethnic celebrations is Epiphany Day, held January 6, when a visiting archbishop throws a cross into the water and a crowd of determined boys, all waiting to spring from rafts, dive in to retrieve it. A huge parade with Greek dancing and costumes follows.

The land boom in Florida during the late 180Os ushered in the building of large hotels to accommodate a very different segment of the population from the immigrants who settled in Tarpon Springs and Yhor City—wealthy tourists traveling on newly built railroads. These were the people who, in Florida’s future, would be strolling the beaches with stylish walking sticks, humming the latest tunes of the day.

Clearwater is still home to several of these hotels. I stayed at the hundred-year-old Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, a sprawling Victorian caravansary made almost entirely of white-painted wood that was built by the railroad developer Henry Plant for his moneyed clientele. Other hotels existed on Florida’s west coast at that time, but none so lavish as those put up by Plant. While construction was under way in 1896, the Tampa Weekly Tribune proclaimed: THE WEST COAST TO BLOSSOM AS A ROSE .

The Belleview did attract the society and business worlds—many people arrived in their own private railroad cars—and after Plant died, his son Morton replaced the golf course’s sand greens with grass and added guest cottages and a larger, more lavish pool. During World War M the Belleview joined many other large hotels by closing down to house servicemen. After a series of postwar changes in ownership, the Belleview was eventually bought by Hideo Kurosawa, a Japanese businessman, who altered the place’s character only slightly by adding a startlingly modern lobby, complete with an enormous silver ceiling decoration and Japanese prints.

At a place like the Belleview Biltmore you can easily forget about the world beyond the hotel as you spend your days going to the pool and strolling around the beautifully kept grounds. Communities like Ybor City and Tarpon Springs can seem as far off as other countries after a few days at it or one of the other old castle-in-the-sand hotels nearby. But 1 found that the thread tying together all these distinct parts of Tampa-St. Petersburg is the strong devotion to the preservation of history and tradition that permeates both the hotels and the small communities around them. It makes them seem less like strangers to one another.

My last stop was at Largo’s Heritage Village, near Clearwater, which holds nearly two dozen of the county’s oldest structures, moved from their original sites. I found a pleasing historical parallel that seemed to exemplify that connection. Not long after Mr. Ybor built las casitas to house his workers, Henry Plant had the Plant-Sumner House built for the Plant Railroad’s foreman and his family. The Plant-Sumner house is slightly grander than the cigar workers’ houses, but both are simple, with Victorian touches, and both kitchens include the exact same sign for telling the iceman how much ice to leave. The railroad foreman and the Cuban immigrant factory worker surely led quite different lives but both remain preserved here and live on separately in Tampa today.

—Vanessa Weiman TO PLAN A TRIP

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