Walking down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, the air has a note of the rich aroma of tobacco leaves. The scent may come from the numerous cigar bars, like King Corona Cigars and More (1523 E. 7th Ave., 813/241-9109, www.kingcoronacigars.com), or the still-operating cigar factories, like the Gonzalez y Martinez Cigar Store and Factory (adjacent to the Columbia Restaurant at the intersection of 7th Ave. and 21st St., 813/248-8210, www.columbiarestaurant.com), where you can stop in to watch the cigar rollers at work (10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.).
More likely, it’s still lingering in the bricks more than 125 years after Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar business here from Key West.
Although Ybor City saw its heyday in the early part of the 20th century, the revitalization that has taken place in the area since the mid-1980s has kept much of the district’s architectural flavor intact. Known mainly for the numerous nightclubs and bars that keep the streets buzzing until the wee hours, you still get a rich sense of history just from walking around the area during the day.
Although many of the cigar factories and social clubs that defined the area in its prime are long gone, the buildings they inhabited mostly remain. The Centro Español social club—originally a gathering place for locals of Spanish descent—is now the Centro Ybor (1600 8th Ave., www.centroybor.com) shopping and entertainment complex. Some icons, however, remain intact: The mosaic-tiled Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. 7th Ave., 813/248-4961) has been serving up fine Spanish food since 1905 (its 1905 Salad is a local legend), but it’s as much a tourist attraction as it is a dining destination.
For a less crowded look at Ybor City’s history, head to the opposite end. José Martí Park (North 13th St. at 8th Ave., 9 a.m.–dusk) is a tiny memorial containing a life-size statue of the hero of Cuba’s independence movement. The park sits on the site where Martí lived while in Ybor City as he worked to mobilize workers in the local cigar factories (including the nearby Ybor Cigar Factory, which, grotesquely enough, now houses a Spaghetti Factory) to support the revolution. Interestingly, the park is actually considered Cuban territory; the country bought the site in 1957.
Also at the western edge of Ybor City is the GaYbor District (near 14th St. and 7th Ave., http://gaybor.com). Throughout the revitalization of Ybor City, this particular patch of land was routinely overlooked as bars and clubs fought for business just two blocks to the east. Soon enough, gay- and lesbian-oriented pubs and restaurants began sprouting up in the area, and in 2007 the GaYbor District Coalition was formed to promote the area as not only gay-friendly but also as a prime factor in Ybor’s economic growth.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition