As Ybor City’s history vanishes, fears for Little Havana

A view of Flag Street in Ybor City, an historic neighborhood in Tampa populated by thousands of immigrants, many from Cuba. Factories here produced millions of cigars annually.
A view of Flag Street in Ybor City, an historic neighborhood in Tampa populated by thousands of immigrants, many from Cuba. Factories here produced millions of cigars annually.

I first became aware of Ybor City’s relevance to Cuban history in my grandfather’s long but engaging historical anecdotes. Abuelo’s stories — part history, part mythology — would hit the spot, especially during patches of boredom throughout my childhood.

The stories revolved mostly around the Cuban struggle for independence from Spanish rule during the second half of the 19th century and they were peppered with humanly flawed yet venerated heroes named Maceo, de Céspedes, Gómez and Martí. In hindsight, I realize that it was probably easier for my grandfather to speak of the victories and romantic conquests of Cuba’s first revolution than to dwell on the hurt and anguish associated with the latter which was, as Cubans’ commonly say, el pan nuestro de cada dia (our daily bread, meaning that those current events were prevalent, maybe too prevalent in our lives).

The most prominent figure in my grandfather’s stories was Jose Martí, “the Apostle” as many Cubans refer to him. The setting of most of these narratives was a town in Tampa called Ybor City, which Abuelo accurately described as a Cuban hub by the late 1800s due to the booming cigar industry. To me, the fabled town, like the Apostle in Abuelo’s stories, seemed surreal.

After I graduated high school in the mid ’80s, approximately a year and a half after my Abuelo Felix had passed away, I enrolled as a freshman at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A scant few weeks into my college experience I realized that I was indeed a few miles away from the fabled town of Ybor City. Upon my discovery, I became obsessed with Ybor City. As I devoured as much of its history as I could, I realized Abuelo’s tales were not as tall as I once thought. In fact, what I discovered was that much of Ybor’s history, especially as it pertained to Cuba, was largely unknown and had been buried under pedestrian, mainstream history that was easier to digest for mainstream American audiences.

In my quest to learn and help preserve Ybor City’s history, I met Tony Pizzo, the unofficial historian of Ybor City. He was a well-intentioned, Italian-American native of Ybor with a larger than life personality, who said to me in the early ’90s that much of Ybor’s history “had been buried by the fury, passion and pace with which residents of Ybor lived their lives.

“We were too busy raising our families and makin’ hay,” Pizzo explained. “No one had time to write it all down.” A sad statement given that the Ybor City immigrant story is every bit as interesting as that of any other American city.

As I visited Ybor City last month, I was saddened to see that the evaporation of history has intensified. Devoid of much of its original identity, Ybor City has become the poster child for how not to preserve history. Historical landmarks have ceded to nondescript, national retailers, cheesy tourist traps and the Church of Scientology, which now owns most of Ybor Square.

Pizzo’s words and the images of Ybor that I took in last month have once again rung an internal alarm in my head as I watch what is going on in parts of Miami, particularly Little Havana and Miami Beach. Much of the Cuban legacy in Little Havana and the Jewish history in Miami Beach have slowly eroded. With few exceptions, historical preservation has been reduced to the safekeeping of building façades and design.

Architect Rolando Llanes discussed with me the difference between good and bad retrofitting or renovation. “We need to recognize not only historic architectural design but, as important if not more so, is what went on inside those buildings,” Llanes said.

Sadly, unless Miamians become more conscious of our historically rich past, my grandchildren will visit Little Havana one day and wonder about the “fabled city” their Abuelo once told them about.