In 1886 Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor established a cigar factory in what is now known as Ybor City, a section of Tampa, Fla. Martinez-Ybor was a Spaniard who moved to Cuba at the age of 14. His career is cigar manufacturing started there. He later established a factory in Key West and then moved it to Ybor. Other manufacturers followed and Ybor City became Florida’s first industrial town. Those factories and the jobs that they offered attracted a work force made up almost exclusively of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Romanian merchants followed, establishing stores in the city, and German lithographers came along and are credited with inventing a new art form, the cigar label.
A central feature of life in late 19th century and early 20th century Ybor was the social clubs for Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants. El Club Nacional Cubano was founded in 1899. Two years later another cigar manufacturer Igancio Haya started the Centro Espanol. L’Unione Italiana came along in 1894 with the initial membership of 116 Italians and eight Spaniards. These clubs not only served as the hub of social life for their membership, but fulfilled a variety of functions that included a type of trade union and a healthcare provider.
The heyday of Ybor City as a cigar manufacturing hub was between 1890 and 1930. At one time it had tens of thousands of residents and it was almost entirely owned and occupied by immigrants. 500 million cigars were made in Ybor in 1929, but that also proved to be the beginning of the end for the industry. During the 30’s the demand for premium cigars waned and in future years manufacturers would turn to automated processes rather than hand-rolling. A decline set in that lasted through the 50’s and 60’s until the city was almost completely abandoned by the 1970’s.
Ybor began to make its comeback in the 1980’s as artists moved into the district. Gentrification followed and by the 1990’s Ybor was being reinvented as an entertainment hub, the “Latin Quarter” of Florida. It continues to be a thriving nightlife center with bars, clubs, restaurants and retail. The Ybor Chamber of Commerce describes it as “a cultural and intellectual hub for new-age immigrants.” It is a National Historic Landmark District and 7th Avenue, the main retail drag, was named by the American Planning Association as one of the “Ten Great Streets in America.”