As the sun beat down on the broad roof of the Ybor Cigar Factory, a man in a crisp, white guayabera walked down the aisle between rows of tables stacked high with tobacco leaves, headed for an elevated platform with a single chair in its center.
To the contrasting rhythms of overhead fans lazily moving the air through the cavernous room and dozens of hands deftly rolling premium cigars, the man took the chair and began reading aloud to the latest shift of workers, part of the 4,000-worker force here at the world's largest cigar factory.
From the late 1890s to the early 1960s, that was a commonplace sight in Ybor City, the polyglot community on the east side of Tampa, which at one time employed 18,000 workers in literally dozens of large and small cigar factories and shops that made it the cigar capital of the world.
The factory reader was more than entertainment for the workers. His efforts formed the basis of an education in English for people who had flocked here from Spain, Cuba, Italy, Romania, Germany, even China, to find work in the factories/
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A vibrant, bustling multiethnic community grew up around the factories, full of ethnic social organizations whose vestiges remain today, as well as nightclubs, restaurants, small shops, art galleries -- everything that today would draw free-spending tourists.
BACK FROM `RENEWAL'
For Ybor (EE-bore), however, much of that community infrastructure is just now being recovered or rebuilt, having succumbed to a series of economic downturns, mechanical advances, changes in health consciousness, and that scourge of the 1960s known as ``urban renewal.''
Urban renewal delivered a devastating blow to Ybor City's history in the 1960s. Seventy acres of what once had been a separate city were leveled.
Literally hundreds of residential structures were razed to make way for an interstate highway and little else despite ambitious plans for extensive development.
Today, thanks to the unflagging efforts of various civic organizations that really began taking hold in the late 1990s, art shops, casual dining places, nightlife offerings ranging from traditional Flamenco dancing to hip comedy, plus pocket parks and tourist sites, all have helped revive the 500-acre remains of Ybor City.
It's an easy place to navigate, truly a walkers' delight, with several centrally located public parking lots and plenty of benches for taking a break. Those with less energy can grab one of the RetroStar Pedicabs.
More than 60 bars, nightclubs and restaurants draw up to 30,000 people to Ybor on weekend nights.
Four years ago, the 2.3-mile TECO Line Streetcar System debuted, linking numerous tourist attractions and remote parking areas. The line serves the ''visitors crescent'' that covers the Tampa Convention Center, the Ice Palace, Garrison Seaport and Florida Aquarium close to downtown Tampa as well as the historic Ybor City district.
Ybor, named for cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor, who founded the community in 1896, is a pleasantly schizophrenic community. A self-guided daytime walking tour will take you from viewing the remaining former cigar factories that have been put to other uses to various statues of local luminaries to Centro Ybor, the commercial center of the community where shopping, dining and nightlife are packed cheek-to-jowl in a curious architectural arrangement -- a bilevel set of brick structures split by Seventh Avenue, Ybor's main thoroughfare.
Many cigar workers lived in casitas, small single-story homes. Three of them have been restored and are part of the Ybor City State Museum at 1818 Ninth Ave. The museum also offers walking tours of Ybor.
One of the renovated cigar factories is now Ybor Square, a mall filled with dining and retail establishments at 1901 N. 13th St. The 113-year-old building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ybor City Brewing Co. -- its Ybor Gold is one of the favorite local beers -- is located in another renovated cigar building, a 104-year-old brick structure at 2205 N. 20th St.
Still another is the former Lozano cigar factory, which has been converted to house the Central Florida Lions Eye & Tissue Bank, the world's largest eye bank, at 1410 N. 21st St.
By day, shoppers, business people, and strolling retirees create comparatively little noise. By night, Ybor is Tampa's hottest hotspot, with a plethora of nightclubs, bars, comedy clubs such as The Improv or the Comedy Works, and casual restaurants drawing everything from college-age kids to Baby Boomers and beyond.
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