The Ybor City Issue 2016: The lost world of Ybor City (WITH VIDEO)

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click to enlarge The Ybor City Issue 2016: The lost world of Ybor City (WITH VIDEO) - Gary Mormino
Gary Mormino
The Ybor City Issue 2016: The lost world of Ybor City (WITH VIDEO)

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. In 2015, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award in writing. He co-authored The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885-1985. At the end of this article, watch a video of his Segway guided tour of Ybor City.

The date was August 25, 1977. Elvis had just died, and I knew nothing about Tampa or the University of South Florida , but I brought an optimism borne of a fresh start.

My life changed the moment I encountered Ybor City. While the year 1977 may have marked Ybor City’s nadir, the community’s architecture and heritage simply dazzled this newcomer. But mostly I remember the people.

Every generation deserves its own music, and its own Ybor City.The Italian Club was my first stop. To this Midwesterner, Ybor City’s Italian Club more resembled a cathedral than a mutual aid society. Witness the structure’s arabesque tiles, cast-iron balustrades, and marble stairs. The ballroom that had hosted don Francisco’s orchestra was now home to scores of pigeons, whose droppings and smells accentuated the faded glory.

To my delight, scores of elderly Italians, Spaniards, and Cubans gathered daily at Ybor City’s “cathedrals for the working classes,” the community’s majestic clubhouses. There, from 1977 to 1983, I interviewed hundreds of elderly cigar makers, green grocers, and boliteros (numbers peddlers). In a ritual, they arrived daily, settling in the cantinas of El Centro Asturiano, El Centro Español, and El Círculo Cubano to sip café con leche and play dominoes.

“When I came here in 1910,” recalled cigar maker Joe Maniscalco, “Ybor City was the best thing in the world I ever saw… Everyone was like family.”

click to enlarge “EVERYONE WAS LIKE FAMILY”: To cigar maker Joe Maniscalco, Ybor in 1910 was “the best thing in the world.” - Gary Mormino
Gary Mormino
“EVERYONE WAS LIKE FAMILY”: To cigar maker Joe Maniscalco, Ybor in 1910 was “the best thing in the world.”
Next door to Maniscalco’s tiny shop was a fish market. Figuratively and literally a larger-than-life character, “Buster” Agliano was Ybor City’s last fishmonger. For decades, I took my students on walking tours of Ybor City. “So what’s the name of your fishmonger?” Buster asked. A just question! He regaled us discussing the market’s glory years, the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of patrons crowded the store each Friday in search of scungilli (conch) and baccalá (salted cod), while also cashing paychecks.

The most curious interview came by accident. In 1982, I was having coffee with the irrepressible Roland Manteiga (of La Gaceta fame) at La Tropicana café. He asked if I knew Danny Alvarez. I did not. Roland motioned for Frank Urso to join us. Frank was a WWII veteran, a boxer, and a retired firefighter. Frank drove me to Seminole Heights where Mr. Alvarez lived.

Alvarez had triumphed over adversity. When his father died in the 1930s — he had shot a General Franco sympathizer and tormenter, and then killed himself — young Frankie was befriended by a kind druggist who operated a pharmacy on Nebraska Avenue. The druggist was Curtis Hixon, and when Hixon became city councilman and mayor, he rewarded his surrogate son with positions in the police department. Alvarez boasted that his most important position was serving as “bagman” for Mayor Hixon, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the underworld to ensure Hixon’s election and non-interference.

In 1982, the Perfecto-García cigar factory in Ybor City closed. Built in 1914, the handsome red-brick factory with its landmark water tower heralded Tampa’s reputation as the center for hand-rolled cigars.

As I awaited the last shift, Dorita Delgado, Evillia LaRussa and Viola Bettencourt appeared. The ladies symbolized an age when Cuesta & Rey and Corral & Wodiska represented family and security. Immigrant women could leave the factories to nurse their babies and return to work. Delgado’s Spanish father and Cuban mother worked at Perfecto-García. Dorita began work in 1923 for $8 a week. She especially treasured memories of Ybor City’s greatest lector — Manuel Aparicio — who had been elected and climbed the tribune to read Victor Hugo and Cervantes to workers. Grace Monte was a selector, a skilled craft requiring a measured eye to grade the quality of the tobacco.

“I guess we’re the last of the Mohicans,” she lamented. An elderly Cuban stopped as we talked. “You know what they used to call this factory?” he asked. “El paraiso [The Paradise].” He explained that a paradise tree once stood outside the front door.

I listened to countless stories about community and urban renewal, sacrifice and perseverance, war and revolution. My eyes glisten when I consider their struggles.

“The minute I saw the Statue of Liberty, I left everything behind,” insisted Nina Tagliarini Ferlita. “It was like stepping on a piece of ice and by the time you’re on the other side, it’s melted.” A Sicilian, her introduction to American life was bittersweet. She related how a man died in steerage and the crew dosed the passengers with disinfectant. “The stink, I still smell it.”

Still, she maintained, “that did not give us a bad impression of America.”
The immigrants who rolled the cigars, who read Don Quixote to workers, who peddled bolita, are gone. But their stories endure and instruct.

“In the evenings,” recalled Angelina Spoto Comescone, “our parents would take us walking. We all loved one another. We would sing as loud as we could, Italian, Spanish, and American songs. Nobody walks anymore. It was beautiful then. Nobody sings anymore.”

The story is told of a young folklorist gathering music from the Scottish countryside.

“What songs did you used to sing?” he asked an elderly farmer. “It’s not the songs, laddie, it’s the singing,” the subject explained.

Ybor City has changed. I do not especially care for the music, the bars or the tattoo parlors, but Ybor City is singing again. Every generation deserves its own music, and its own Ybor City.

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