Ybor Speaks: new sound installation showcases the history of Tampa's famous neighborhood

In Ybor City’s Centennial Park, crowing roosters provide the soundtrack for a recent weekday morning.

Now, “Ybor Speaks,” a new public art sound installation, gives the history, personal stories and sounds of daily life in Ybor City from the arrival of new immigrants in the 1890s through the artists and writers who birthed a creative revival in the 1980s. In between, there is the boom of the 1920s, Word War II and the urban renewal of the 1960s, which saw much of Ybor razed to make way for new construction.

The City of Tampa’s Arts & Cultural Affairs Division commissioned playwright Sheila Cowley and her husband, sound engineer Matt Cowley, to lead the project.

“This project was a great way for us to do something in a historic district that was interpretive and would give people a sense of the historic fabric of the area and what a magical place Ybor City is,” says Tampa's Arts & Cultural Affairs Manager Robin Nigh. 
"Ybor Speaks" features voice actors from the Spanish Lyric Theatre, the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance and other Tampa Bay stage and screen actors performing stories scripted by Sheila Cowley.

“Everything I do is always collaborative so we just brought in as many people as we could,” she says.

While working on the project, which took three years because of COVID-related delays, Sheila Cowley read more than 130 books that included history or personal stories of Ybor City. Local actors also voice excerpts from some of those books. The featured authors include Gary Mormino, Ferdie Pacheco, Jack Espinosa, Scott Deitche and Tony Pizzo, and Wallace Reyes. In addition to English, the immigrant experience in Ybor is told in Spanish, Italian, Russian, Romanian, Yiddish and Vietnamese. 

Local musical group La Lucha wrote and performed an original composition for “Ybor Speaks,” with the style of the music shifting by era. It’s a big band sound for the 1920s and mournful for the 1960s, when so much of the neighborhood is torn down. In the 1980s, it becomes a dance song.

Matt Cowley says his soundscape reproduces “the sounds of daily life back then.” There’s the sound of horse-drawn buggies, street carts, automobiles and, during WW II, shipbuilding. By the 1980s, the soundtrack of Ybor City shifts to the music and noise from a Guavaween celebration.

The City of Tampa's first permanent public art sound installation, "Ybor Speaks" plays from speakers under the pavilion at Centennial Park at the top of the hour from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Saturday. 

For more information and to view online videos made for the project, go to Ybor Speaks.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.