From Artists to Jell-O Shooters

When I came back, my city was gone.

Ybor City residents, habitues and I have been saying this for a century. Ybor has proven to be a many-faced, flexible mother or whore — according to the parking situation of the moment.

I've lost Ybor City many times. I lost La Tropicana in the '70s, where my frugal family would go to eat the 25-cent deviled crabs. I now regularly meet my parents at the newer location of La Tropicana usually to introduce them to the next potential addition to the old family tree. It may be the tradition of the place, but the saplings seldom stand up to this cafe con leche-fueled meeting that takes place next to an avenue where mothers and fathers chaperoned their daughters' love lives with the heaviest of hands and deepest of hearts.

The city has seen blood baths around the twin vices of bootlegging and bolita. During Prohibition, Tampa was known as the "wettest" city in the United States. People from across America flocked to the city for a drinking holiday. Many a stealthily brewed Italian whiskey was quaffed from an innocent-looking espresso cup.

In this urban tradition of mutation, collapse and rebirth, furniture artisan Walter Romeo returns to Seventh Avenue after years of absence.

Romeo was a twinkle in his vivacious Italian mother's eye in an early Ybor. She worked in an olive-packing plant. When her boss wasn't looking, she would sometimes throw choice olives down to a particularly fetching young furniture maker who moonlighted as a cab driver.

This romance is a sepia-toned curiosity set against the new Ybor, where flirtation often begins with body shots gunning into a morning of forgotten names. However, these are both love stories from a city that echoes with a hot-blooded history in several languages and lingoes.

Endings in Ybor are always beginnings. Veterans returning from World War II could not find the city they left. It was gone. They flocked to West Tampa. After Prohibition, bootleggers created family dynasties paralleling Joe Kennedy's by taking their business into more acceptable pursuits, like politics.

Romeo's family has been in Ybor City for three generations. Most of the original iron railings down Seventh Avenue were fashioned by his father and grandfather. Railings that have been mute witness to everything from mob hits to punk rockers skirmishing with skinheads to clandestine seekers of X, treating the Avenue like a seething drug store.

These same wrought iron bars are now visible outside the building that Romeo owns.

He says he has put his very lifeblood into his new place. When you understand the concept of blood in the Italian way, one that flows back through the hearts of generations, you understand how formidable his return is to him. "Sweat and equity, " he laughs generously with hands outstretched to the high sky-blue ceiling, which says things about skies above Italian villages.

Romeo's store combines classic furniture from a variety of traditions in a gallery and cafe setting. From his father, he learned the skill of cabinetry and furniture making. He still uses his father's original templates that reflect decades of styles.

After being chased out of the city by construction, Romeo's return to Ybor marks a slow re-invasion of the artisan back into the land of liquid panty remover. Here in Romeo's expansive smile is a city full of familial pride and stories that spring forth from storefronts that no longer house a domino game but still echo with those tiles. Sitting in a plush chair in his store featuring local art with well-designed furniture on Seventh Avenue, Romeo recalls earlier decades.

"I want to bring back the culture of art to Ybor. When I first opened my store here, it was among a thriving art community. It was affordable and the artists created an environment that became attractive to developers that priced them out of the very world they had created. Art belongs in Ybor," he explains with a passion that resounds in a city that still holds a proud tradition of lectores. The lectores read politics, news, humor and classics to what was of the best-informed workforces in the country: the cigar factory workers. While Romeo's is open, the store's official opening reception has been postponed because Walter's wife, state Rep. Sara Romeo, had a brain tumor removed after the last legislative session. As a freshman legislator suffering a serious condition, she shone in a contentious session that threatened everything from environment, seniors and aquifers. Sara Romeo made Ybor proud as someone who always seemed to remember where she came from and why she was there. Getting balance back to Ybor, Walter Romeo has invited some of the most interesting artists for his opening, tentatively scheduled in July. Tomas Marias, Guillermo Portieles, Dennis Johnson, Greg Latch, Ray Paul and Alex Espalter-Torres all sport the type of backgrounds that made Ybor a beacon of diversity. I asked Romeo if he picked this group because their tempers were equal to their celebrated talents. These artists at a gathering are more likely to preside over a brawl than the standard gentle wine sipping and narcolepsy. Read: A must-see event.

Romeo explained: "These guys, are everything Ybor should be."

And looking at the wall, noting some hint of the work they will be showing, I have to agree. Romeo's Ybor is still a city of many faces, hard working artisans and a breeding ground where conflict is an opportunity for transcendence.

Romeo's Stylish Furniture, Art Gallery and Coffee Cafe is at 1515 Seventh Ave. in Ybor City, Tampa. RhondaK is a frequent contributor to the Planet and writes a column in Focus music magazine.