Creative City: Tech, architecture, design firms spur Ybor renaissance

Mustard yellow trolley cars, classic rock cover songs, a palm tree-lined avenue with the ever-present scent of cigars, stale booze, and fried food in the air. For a lot of out-of-towners -- and, indeed, a lot of locals -- these are the sights, sounds, and smells of Ybor City, a place where history and happy hour entwine like vines climbing an old oak tree.

But stroll down 7th Avenue during business hours, travel the less trodden sidewalks of Tampa’s iconic district, and you’ll find places that speak to Ybor’s more purer character. Architecture and design firms are scattered about. Galleries and studios, such as the Ybor Art Colony, showcase works by upcoming and established local artists. And creative spaces open their doors to anyone willing to try their hand at performing arts, from standup comedy to circus acts. Ybor isn’t (just) drink specials and debauchery. It’s also a community of creative entrepreneurs who value the historic district for its diversity, accessibility, and ability to adapt to changing times.

“Ybor City, like most cities, has its waves of involvement,” says Lori Rosso, executive director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. “The creative industries that were lured here 10 years ago were public relations firms, website developers, etcetera. Now we see an influx in technology and architectural and design companies. Industries that seek to see outside of the box find Ybor a fertile work area for ideas.”

Ybor has long been home to inspired creative types and innovative entrepreneurs. It was here in 1885 that an enterprising Spanish immigrant and cigar manufacturer named Vicente Martinez-Ybor bought 90 acres of land, which would eventually take his name. Vicente and his cohorts proceeded to construct cigar factories, shotgun houses, and small shops with the aim to build an ostensibly egalitarian company town, partially owned and operated by private entrepreneurs like himself. The tabaqueros he employed to roll cigars in his factories considered themselves artists and craftsmen more than mere workers.

Experiencing a renaissance

A century later and after decades of neglect, Ybor experienced a renaissance that began as artists set up studios in dilapidated buildings, taking advantage of cheap rent and, in turn, helping revitalize the local economy. Throughout the 1990s, Ybor grew into a popular nightlife destination as bars, clubs, and restaurants populated 7th Avenue. In the 2000s, renovation and restoration projects brought life back to many of the district’s historic buildings, with new construction and gentrification closely in tow. But it wasn’t until more recently that the district began to shed its image as a hot spot of indulgence.

“When we started, there was nothing necessarily special or different about Ybor City,” says Roberto Torres, co-founder of Ybor-based fashion brand Black and Denim. “It was a neighborhood in transition that was still trying to figure out what it could be.”

Launched in 2012, Black and Denim has grown into a recognizable clothing line that celebrates the Tampa Bay Area, co-opting Ybor imagery -- like its nickname, Cigar City -- for its designs. Imagine Lucky Strike and Harley Davidson had a kid. 

Esteban Cristancho, left, and Izzy Honda serve up hot drinks at Blind Tiger.A few years later, Torres opened The Blind Tiger, a cafe selling Black and Denim merchandise and serving some of the best cold brew coffee around. Since opening his businesses, Torres says he has witnessed Ybor make a complete 180 from where it was a decade ago, when it leaned more heavily on the service economy. 

“We've seen this enormous transformation of different enterprises moving into the district, weaving their own narrative into its fabric,” he says. “That has driven an influx of people from different walks of life, so that…during the day it's completely different than what it looks like between 1 and 7 in the morning, which is what people remember Ybor for from 15 years ago.”

Kim Headland, president of the state chapter of American Institute of Architects, has also noticed a shift in the local scene but highlighted the quintessential character of Ybor that's served creatives for decades. 

“Ybor offers a huge diversity of interesting, eclectic, and historic spaces for creative industries,” she says. “It is also urban, walkable, and has a wealth of amazing restaurants to choose from for lunch or after hours. There is a very rich urban fabric here with a true community of amazing people -- business owners, residents, stakeholders -- that all appreciate how unique Ybor is.”

The regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) celebrated the renovation and opening of its headquarters, the Center for Architecture and Design, in the historic Sans Souci building on 7th Avenue last year. The association, which supports and promotes professional architects and those in the architectural field, serves as a local leader in the community from its hub in Ybor. Besides meeting space for members, the Center for Architecture and Design also features a gallery that showcases local artists, student projects, and design contest winners with a focus on the built environment. 

Wilder Architecture, the firm where Headland currently works, has been based in Ybor City since 2004. Ybor felt undiscovered for much of the time since then, says Headland, but people are beginning to catch on. “Ybor is remarkable in its resiliency and its ability to reinvent itself.”

Welcoming newcomers

One of the newer faces helping shape Ybor's creative scene is Jessica Watson, a third-generation circus performer who set up shop in an immense monolithic gym just off 7th Avenue two years ago. The Keep Yoga and Circus Arts now offers dozens of classes in circus arts for people with all levels of experience -- classes ranging from beginner trapeze to adult tumbling and aerial yoga.

Inside the airplane hangar-sized facility, multicolored fabrics, ropes, and hoops hang from steel beams in the ceiling. On a recent Thursday evening Watson worked with members of the Aerial Dragons, Keep’s resident performance troupe, in preparation for Carpe Noctem (Seize the Night), a vampire-themed performance they held at the Straz Center on August 3, 4, and 5.

Heather McClellan, center, and Ashley Gibson warm up during acro and aerial yoga at The Keep.Meanwhile, Nicole Kenney, a trainer at the Keep and Aerial Dragons member, worked with four students (some of whom were trainers themselves) and a journalist (meaning me) on conditioning and flexibility techniques. “Each trainer can teach you something new,” she says.

Sabrina Maldonado, a life coach and Keep student who participated in the Straz show, scaled to the top of a long stream of crimson fabric before gliding her way down. Maldonado credits Watson for helping her overcome a crippling fear of heights.

“When I first started I could barely get off the ground because I was shaking so much,” she says. “Now I’m climbing 30 feet up like it's no problem.”

About a mile away from the Keep, the Centro Ybor shopping center is home to the Tampa branch of the Improv Comedy Theater, a nationally renowned brand that's helped launch the careers of many famous comedians. Tucked in the shadow of a steel, sea foam green walkway, the venue features touring stand up acts throughout the week but, on Thursdays, open mic night brings professionals and amateurs to the stage.

John Jacobs, a local comic and "correspondent" for the satirical Tampa News Force, who’s been doing stand up for over a decade, lives near Ybor and recognizes the district’s appeal in its cast of characters. “Ybor is exciting," he says. "It's a good melting pot of personalities and there's a lot of interesting stuff going on at all times.

“7th Avenue is the closest thing we have to a Hollywood Boulevard,” he adds. “It's a good tourist spot and a never-ending, rotating door of new people coming in and out. I've run many different open mic [nights] at different venues in Ybor and it's always been easy to bark people in from off the street.”

And tucked away in a building where Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti slept in 1891, the Fort Walton Beach-based Doolittle Institute runs SOFWERX, named for its connection to Special Operations Forces and MacDill Air Force Base. SOFWERX includes OpenWERX and DirtyWERX, which handles fast prototyping in a separate location.

Like the rest of Tampa, Ybor is developing -- but it isn't necessarily expanding. There's not a lot of space in the historic district, a fact that the Chamber's Rosso thinks could prove challenging for future growth. The Ybor City Development Corporation also doesn’t offer creative industry businesses any tax incentives to move there, though they do provide small grants and facade improvements.

Nonetheless, she thinks the creative industries will continue to be attracted by “the connectivity and collaboration that is afforded by Ybor City being a smaller geographic area. … There is also a genuine pride in the community of Ybor because of its heritage and that's something you can't make happen elsewhere.”

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Read more articles by Dyllan Furness.

Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer and born-again Floridian based in Tampa. He covers the Tampa Bay Area’s development boom for 83 Degrees, with an eye out for sustainable and community-driven initiatives.