Tales Of The City

They remember the Roberts City neighborhood. Do you?

click to enlarge THE WAY IT WAS: George Lopez points to the former site of the Buena Vista Hotel on North Boulevard, where a Boys and Girls Club is being built. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
THE WAY IT WAS: George Lopez points to the former site of the Buena Vista Hotel on North Boulevard, where a Boys and Girls Club is being built.

The Roberts City gang meets at 10 a.m. every Monday and Friday at El Gallo de Oro, a West Tampa coffee shop just a few miles from where they grew up. The men, all retired and in their 70s, come dressed in short-sleeved button-downs and tinted glasses. They sit around a small wooden table, dipping Cuban toast into café con leche, talking politics and ragging on each other unmercifully until about noon. Then it's time to head back home, to various towns around Hillsborough County.

There's no point in going back to the old neighborhood, Roberts City. It's not there. Hasn't been since the early '60s, when urban renewal renewed it right into the ground. Off the map now for 40 years and largely forgotten, Roberts City sat on the western bank of the Hillsborough River, across from where the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is today. Home to about 150 working-class families, the area was bordered by North Boulevard to the west, Cass Street to the south, and the Hillsborough River to the north and east. Today, its only occupants are Blake High School, Tampa Presbyterian Village, Lane Park and Tampa Prep.

Planned like a Northern industrial town, Roberts City was anchored by J.W. Roberts' cigar factory, where most folks in the community worked. Cubans, African-Americans, Spaniards and Italians all lived in Roberts City, making it "as integrated a place as you had in the South," according to Rodney Kite-Powell, a curator at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"It was a harmonious neighborhood, that's one thing I'm proud of," said Orlando Salinero last Friday morning at El Gallo de Oro. Salinero, 76, is full of memories. Sneaking into the fair. Watching his father sell tickets for bolita, an underground numbers game. Heading down to the Rialto Theater to watch a busty burlesque dancer named Betty Coyette. "The more you clapped," he says with a laugh, "the more she took off."

The men's stories pour out: the old football coach who set them straight, the smells from La Popular Bakery, the boxing gym beneath the old Buena Vista Hotel. Tony Castellana, 76, whose father owned a grocery store, remembers people not showing up to pay their bills during the Depression. "We were so poor, we didn't know we were poor," he says.

They've still got the nicknames. Salinero, Cuban and very light-skinned, is Powderface. Castellana is Fat Boy. And then there's Yoye, George Lopez, who was sick last Friday and couldn't make it to the coffee shop. If you want to learn about Roberts City, they tell the reporter, you've got to talk to Yoye. He's the historian.

Lopez lives on a three-acre piece of land in Seffner, about 14 miles away from the old neighborhood, where his father Antonio worked in the cigar factory. The kind of guy who'll put his arm around you before he shakes your hand, Lopez has waged a one-man campaign to move Roberts City's story into the public consciousness.

He has collected hundreds of photos, among them snapshots of the local boys who went off to war, including his brothers. He got Leland Hawes, the former history columnist at the Tampa Tribune, to write a few stories. He's started writing his own history, too.

"It's just in his heart," says Lopez' wife Kathie Jo.

"There's nothing on Roberts City," Lopez says of why the place is largely forgotten. "Not even a plaque."

Giving a reporter a tour on Monday morning, he runs into a Lane Park security guard. "We're talking about Roberts City," he tells her. "You ever heard of Roberts City?"

"No," she says, and turns away.

"You see?" he says.

The tour doesn't take long - Roberts City was just three blocks wide and seven long. But for George Lopez and the guys at El Gallo, it deserves a much bigger place in Tampa's collective memory.

"I just want people to know the name Roberts City," he says before beginning the short drive to El Gallo.

It's 10 a.m., Monday morning. The gang is waiting.

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