Ybor City: The city of resilience and reinvention

Ybor City is associated with many monikers. The cigar capital of the United States, the place to get the best Cuban sandwich, home of the roosters and one of the oldest restaurants in Florida.

It’s also rich with history, beautiful architecture and an impassioned community, some of whom have connections to the city that date back more than 100 years. It’s even home to a small piece of land that is actually Cuba.

In an effort to get to know Ybor City, as it is today, you must first walk through the streets and learn the history. The appreciation will follow.

MARTINEZ-YBOR & HAYA

The Hotel Haya opened in Ybor City in September of 2020.

The hotel, which sits on three quarters of the city block, is a stunning addition to the city. A luxury oasis on the 1400 block of East Seventh Avenue, in the middle of the action, provides a small taste of Havana, Cuba.

The inspiration of the hotel dates back 120 years. Ybor City was a melting pot of Cuban, Italian, Spanish and Jewish cultures.

To tell the tale of Hotel Haya is to tell the story of Ybor itself.

“The main reason as to why this became such a popular place was thanks to Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the founder of the city,” says Pablo Molinari, general manager of Hotel Haya.

Vicente Martinez-Ybor was a Spanish entrepreneur and cigar manufacturer in Cuba, Key West and Tampa.

When he arrived in Tampa, it was still crocodiles and swamps, according to Molinari.

“He realized that there was potential to install a cigar factory, as the climate here could handle the tobacco leaves that he would import from Cuba,” Molinari says.

Tampa was in a unique regional location with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico to get to the tobacco leaves from Cuba. It also had access to a railroad line that would lead up to New York, another large business hub for shipping tobacco products.

What formed was a very tight, culturally rich, community. Around this time, Martinez-Ybor contacted a friend from the north, Ignacio Haya.

“He said to him, ‘Listen, I think we have a great opportunity here for us to create something big and something important.’ So Mr. Haya came down and became his business partner,” Molinari recalls.

Haya became a crucial part of the development of Ybor. He was a partner and founder of Sanchez & Haya Real Estate Co., which owned most of the buildings on East Broadway, now called Seventh Avenue, he was a co-founder of the Centro Español Mutual Aid Society. He also was instrumental in supporting the social lives of his workers in the formation of the Spanish Casino, an organization devoted to the recreation and entertainment of cigar makers.

“It wasn’t just cigars, it was way more than that,” Molinari says.

Chris Wojtowicz, chairman of the Ybor City Community Advisory Committee and Ybor City Development Corp., echoes this sentiment.

“One of the key reasons that Mr. Haya was such a smart businessman was, that Tampa wasn’t just a good place to import Cuban tobacco. But it’s because another famous name in Tampa is part of this story too. And that’s Henry Plant,” Wojtowicz says. “He built a railhead. It’s one thing to roll cigars, it’s another thing to be able to get them to market. The fact that you had a port that was close, and convenient, to Cuba and you had a railway to  get your products to market is the combo that got those guys to pick this spot.”

YBOR’S EVOLUTION

History plays a large part of the pride for the Ybor City community. It’s a feeling that is present as you walk through the brick roads and pass by the small coffee shops, restaurants and, yes, cigar shops.

It’s important to note that it’s much more than a cigar town, and always has been, but to dismiss the industry’s presence in the burgeoning city is to do it injustice.

“It’s really difficult to know exactly how many cigar factories were here but there were almost 200 [by most accepted accounts]. Some people say it was over 200, some people say it was 170. The challenge was there were so many buildings going up and some were coming down, that the exact number at any given time was hard to know,” Wojtowicz says. “Tampa produced over 400 million hand-rolled cigars a year, at a time, which is if you could just think about that number, and how massive that number is, the amount of labor that went into that is unreal. So labeling Tampa as Cigar City, and Ybor City the heart of it, that’s really accurate.”

The Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez Sr., was one of the first restaurants to open in Ybor. The restaurant group is now in its fourth, and fifth, generations of ownership and is still a beloved institution.

The Cuban Club still stands at 2010 Avenida Republica de Cuba, after being rebuilt following a fire in 1916.

Maintaining a certain historical reverence is something that developers in Ybor City must be keenly aware of. It’s not a community that takes lightly to erasing the authenticity of its character.

The idea about the Hotel Haya project was to recreate what it would have been in Cuba, during the heyday of 1950s, if there were no restrictions, Molinari says.

Alfonso Architects were called in to help bring the vision to life. Alberto Alfonso was born in Cuba and came to the United States at an early age, according to Molinari.

“You need to know a little bit about history. If you look at the turquoise color that you see on that chair, and search online for images of the American Theater in Havana, you will see exactly where that influence comes from,” Molinari says. “When you look at the courtyard, every house for the most part in Cuba has a courtyard. You either have your grandma, or your grandpa, playing Domino’s or drinking coffee, or you have the chickens running around. The difference is we have a gorgeous pool [in our courtyard].”

And gorgeous is an understatement. From the minute you enter Hotel Haya you have the subtle homages to Cuban life, and likewise, Ybor life. A rooster statute greets you at the swanky bar. The feel of a lounge with books and games. There is drapery to remind you this is no modern-day setting but none of it feels dated or misplaced. It’s a seamless transition to a time that has passed.

BERNINI OF YBOR

One of the best ways to get an Ybor businessperson excited is to ask them about the history of the building they are located in.

Jason Fernandez, owner and operator of the Historic Hospitality family of restaurants in Ybor City, including Bernini, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2021, was far more interested in showing off the behind-the-scenes tour of Bernini than talking about food.

Bernini is located in the old Bank of Ybor City. It has an old safe remaining in the dining room façade and the back stairwells will take you up three levels where there are private meeting rooms. It’s a building from 1896.

For the record, the food is to not be ignored. The offerings at Bernini are culinary delights. Both delicious and beautifully presented.

After all, Fernandez’ informal training started while working for his neighbor, Adela Gonzmart, owner of Columbia at that time. He has worked with Ella Brennan at the Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and with renowned chef, and restauranteur, Wolfgang Puck.

For him, there’s a deep love and appreciation for Ybor and his restaurant peers.

“There are so many businesses that need supporting,” Fernandez says. “As much as I want everyone to come into my restaurant, there are a lot of people struggling and need the help. I will always put the local entrepreneur in front of a corporate restaurant. I believe we should support our local businesses, and eat and drink local, but there’s a lot of people hurting out there.”

A TEST OF YBOR’S RESILIENCE

Bernini, like countless others, closed their doors completely for a duration in 2020. But when they came back, the loyal customers reappeared and have been coming in ever since, Fernandez says. “Safely and distanced,” he adds.

Fernandez also managed the popular Carne Chophouse, which was located in Ybor City’s historic Centro Español building, and Tequila’s. Both have shuttered as another casualty of the Coronavirus Pandemic and will not reopen.

“We just need to get everyone out and going again. I think herd immunity will help with that. But we’re hoping for the roaring 20’s without the depression at the end. We’ve already had the depression.”

King Corona Cigars Café & Bar was established in 1998 and has been under the current ownership of Justin Jacobson since 2017.

Founded by the late Don Barco, and his wife, Brenda Barco, the retail store and café evolved into a social institution where visitors and locals mingled together. That mingling, too, was put on hold thanks to the pandemic.

“Everything’s still down,” Jacobson says. “This is supposed to be parade season.”

Missing those tourism, and event-related, dollars have no doubt been a hurdle to recovery for these businesses that partially rely on that revenue.

“One of the advantages that we have [at King Corona], especially for tourists, is we’re kind of a safer spot amongst the craziness that can go on out there. It’s perfect for happy hour or for people watching. We’re one of the only places with a big patio where you can just watch.”

Gathering is a big part of Jacobson’s business and when that can’t happen, it’s a blow to his bottom line. But like Fernandez’ restaurant up the street, Jacobson says it’s the locals who continue to show up and show support.

“The community has been very supportive,” he says. “Ever since we reopened in May.”

One thing is certain, this is not a city that backs down and gives up. It’s contended with depressions, recessions, crime and rowdy college kids over, and over, again. It still stands tall.

“Ybor City is hundreds of years old and we’re still in our infancy stages,” Fernandez says.

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