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Monday, September 22, 2014

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Visiting Tampa Bay’s historic legacy

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The historic district of Ybor City. [Robert La Follette photo]

Most snowbirds heading to Tampa Bay are looking for sun and a little poolside lounging, but for culture and history buffs, there’s another fascinating activity that’s easy to do – search out the area’s Jewish roots.

In the city’s historic district of Ybor City those roots are deep. “There were at least 90 different businesses owned by Jewish families. The biggest wave of Jewish immigrants came in the 1880s, and there was also a large boom in the 1910s. Some of the families are still in the Tampa Bay area,” says Liz McCoy, curator of programs and education at the Ybor City Museum Society.

The best way to start your exploration is at the Jewish Roots of Ybor exhibit at the Ybor City Museum (until the end of 2014) on Ninth Avenue. Photos of families, founding groups, homes and businesses give visitors a fascinating glimpse into Tampa’s Jewish community at the turn of the last century. Meeting in their homes, Ybor City Jews formed Congregation Schaarai Zedek in 1894.

In 1903 a split between Reform and Orthodox members resulted in the formation of the Orthodox Rodeph Sholom. Although the synagogues of both congregations are now in South Tampa and the old Jewish businesses have also left, the retail buildings remain. Ask at the museum for a map and audio unit for a self-guided tour, or sign up for a two-hour guided tour for $18.

Walking the quaint brick streets, it’s easy to get a feel for the way things used to be. The buildings still are dressed with decorative wrought iron balconies, and even though many have become nightclubs and restaurants, you just need to scan the top of the structures to see the original family name and year spelled out in contrasting concrete. Usually, Jewish families built their own retail outlets with living quarters on the upper floor. There are also historic plaques to help you find your way around.

Ybor City was stoked into existence by stogies. In the 1880s, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a prominent Spanish-born cigar manufacturer, moved his cigar-making operation from Key West to some scrubland just northeast of Tampa. Other factory-owners followed and almost overnight, immigrants from Spain, Cuba, Germany and Italy arrived for jobs in the cigar trade. With this growth came opportunities for merchants.

Many Romanian Jews escaped from marginalizing laws in their home country and flocked to Ybor City where they started businesses specializing in everything from hats to housewares to clothing to groceries. Successful families included the Kaunitzs, the Argintars, Simovitzs, Kasriels, Wohls, Buchmans and Bobos.

“The Kaunitz family was the first Jewish retailer in the 1890s with the El Sombrero Blanco dry goods store. It was called El Sombrero Blanco because Isidore Kaunitz was known for wearing a white cowboy-style hat. He was very supportive to other Jewish immigrants, giving them jobs and helping them get loans to start up their own businesses,” says McCoy.

Another bustling business was the Blue Ribbon Supermarket, owned by the Bobo family. “The matriarch, Sahla Bobo, took over the store in the 1950s. She had eight children, including boys, but she was in charge. She was a real feminist trailblazer and kept the store open until the 1990s,” says McCoy.

Max Argintar’s menswear store, which opened in 1908, was the last of the Jewish-owned businesses to shut its doors in the district in 2004.

While you’re in Ybor City, hop on the historic TECO Line Streetcar right behind the museum. The bright yellow car chugs by Channelside’s cruise terminal, dry dock and aquarium and then passes downtown landmarks including the hockey arena, stadium and art museum. The downtown area known as South Tampa has gone through a major transformation in the past years.

“There are 30,000 Jews living in Tampa and 46 per cent now live in South Tampa due to an urban revival,” says Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa Jewish Community Center. In order to service this population the JCC plans to transform Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, a 1930s architectural gem, into the area’s beating heart.

The 10-acre property was an encampment for Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” at the outbreak of the Spanish American War and the Armory, dedicated the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, has staged shows for performers including Elvis Presley and James Brown. Martin Luther King spoke there, as did John F. Kennedy in 1963, four days before his assassination. In 2012 the Tampa Jewish Community Centre signed a 99-year lease with an option to buy the 75,000 sq. ft. building.

Now it is set to become the Jewish Community Center South Campus. Originally located in South Tampa, the JCC relocated to a 21-acre North Campus when people were moving to the suburbs in the 1960s. Now there is enough demand for two separate locations.

“We’ve given great consideration to the conservation of this historic landmark, which we will revive and restore,” says Ross. The city plans to relocate its fine arts centre within the complex, and the Tampa General Hospital plans to sublet space for a health and wellness centre.

“The South Campus will have the usual education and fitness components, but it’s also going to be a premiere event centre,” says Ross, adding, “almost half of our $20 million budget has been raised.” The biggest pledges came from Bryan Glazer, co-chair of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who committed $4 million, and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s family, which pledged $1.5 million. Ross hopes to see the doors open in 2016.

From Ybor City’s roots to South Tampa’s urban revival, Jewish spirit has contributed significantly to Tampa Bay making it a destination with so much more to see than sun and sand.

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