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For Ybor City, a historic cigar town faces a cloudy future

A sultry morning in Ybor City feels like a good time for a cigar. That's what I told myself around 10:45 on my third day in this old quarter of Tampa, as I sweated out the previous night in front of the King Corona Cigar Bar and Cafe, sipping a milky iced Cuban coffee and puffing on a particularly robust, particularly expensive Nicaraguan stogie.

Okay, who am I kidding? Every minute of every day in Ybor City is a good time for a cigar. In fact, by my count I'd smoked at least 15 cigars during the previous 48 hours. And to be clear, I am no cigar aficionado: These days, in my normal life, I smoke maybe two cigars per year. Like many of us in this enlightened age, I've internalized the surgeon general's warning on smoking as intensely as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer. Yet in Ybor City, it seems as if - whether perversely or refreshingly - one enters a parallel universe where smoking cigars is still a totally natural part of life.

At King Corona, I had perused the rows of hundreds of tightly stacked cigars in dozens of garishly labeled boxes inside the humidor before I settled on a box-pressed Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series.

"That's one of the few cigars that I like the secondhand smell of," the guy behind the counter said. I could have smoked it right inside the cafe, blowing my smoke in his general direction, but I chose to take my coffee and cigar at a table outside in the too-bright Florida sunshine. I joined a group of men - old and young, black and white, Tommy Bahama shirts, suits and tank tops - smoking away.

I exhaled a pungent cloud of smoke and gazed down Seventh Avenue, Ybor City's calle principal, at the old Centro Español, at the wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of Spanish-inflected New Orleans, at signs that read "Tabacos Hechos A Mano," at storefront windows where, all day long, you can watch Cuban men and women rolling fermented tobacco leaves and dried filler into cigars. On my first visit to King Corona a couple of days earlier, I was a novice. The clerk asked me, "Do you want a straight cut, V-cut or punch cut?" When I stared at him dumbly, he said, "Straight cut," and snipped the top off with a guillotine-style cutter. When I grabbed a box of wooden matches and tried unsuccessfully to light my cigar, he said, "I think you're going to need this," and fired up a butane lighter the size of a blowtorch with a blue flame that smoldered the tip in seconds. By day three, I had bought my own proper blowtorch lighter and guillotine cutter, and had acquired just enough knowledge - Can you give me a V-cut on this box-pressed Nicaraguan with the sun-grown Maduro wrapper, please - to be really annoying.

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Now a draw of my cigar was like a strange version of Proust's madeleine and brought me back to the mid-1990s, to the memories of the once-trendy-but-now-vaguely-embarrassing cigar-bar craze. I thought about summer evenings on patios smoking cigars with my brother Tyler, once the greatest of cigar aficionados, who gave away the contents of his humidor several years ago after having developed health issues.

But I was beginning to see Ybor City as a sort of spiritual home, like a Bordeaux of cigars. Here, cigar people are as serious as wine or cocktail connoisseurs, and my head was swimming with new knowledge and terms. Did I want a cigar with a shade-grown or sun-grown wrapper? Box-pressed (i.e., square) or round? A wrapper grown in Connecticut or Ecuador? What size of ring gauge did I want: a thinner lancero or a thicker Churchill or Presidente? I learned that Nicaragua's volcanic soil created a more complex, peppery tobacco, while in Honduras, planted near sugar cane, tobacco had more sweetness. Call it the wine-ification of cigars.

Yet even with all cigar connoisseurship happening up and down Seventh Avenue, it was hard to ignore that Ybor City - a National Historic Landmark District - had seen better days. In the early 20th century, Tampa had been the undisputed cigar capital of the world, outproducing even Havana. In its heyday, the city had more than 150 factories, employing about 10,000 workers and rolling more than 500 million cigars each year. Now, beyond the small storefront producers still rolling premium handmade cigars, only one large cigar factory remains.

To me, Ybor City exudes an attractive seediness, of the kind that someone like Graham Greene reveled in and once described: "There seemed to be a seediness about the place you couldn't get to the same extent elsewhere, and seediness has a very deep appeal. . . . It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back."

I took a final puff of my Nicaraguan cigar and left a third of it smoldering in the giant ashtray on my table - a deliberate act of self-preservation. As I wandered away from the smoky tables and into fresh air, I could still smell the cedary aromas as I passed each cigar shop on Seventh Avenue. And I wondered how to be properly nostalgic about cigars, as well as this strange corner of America.

• • •

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the 95-year-old La Gaceta trilingual newspaper in Ybor city.

Tampa just wouldn't be Tampa without the cigar industry," Patrick Manteiga told me. "But this history is ignored because it doesn't fit with a certain narrative. You have to understand that in the early 20th century, Tampa was just as exotic as Havana."

We sat at the Manteiga family's private table, on ornately carved wooden chairs, in a corner of La Tropicana Cafe, which for decades has been a gathering place on Seventh Avenue for Ybor City's immigrant community. Over a lunch of Spanish bean soup, Cuban sandwiches and deviled crab (a dish created by striking cigar factory workers in the 1920s), we chatted a bit about Tampa foodways and its ultimate fusion dish, crab chilau - blue-crab meat in a spicy enchilada sauce, often served over spaghetti - which perfectly represents Ybor City's cultural mix. But mostly we talked history.

Manteiga is the editor and publisher of La Gaceta, the trilingual 18,000-circulation weekly newspaper covering Ybor City that his grandfather founded 95 years ago. Earlier he'd been at the nearby Circulo Cubano, a grand 1917 building that was home to the Cuban immigrants' social clubs and mutual-aid society- much like the Centro Español, the Centro Asturiano and L'Unione Italiana, all still standing in downtown Ybor City. "This was the Deep South," Manteiga said. "It was hostile territory with an angry white population. But the Latin community had money, and so they could create these mutual-aid societies."

The Latin community's money, of course, came from cigars. Vicente Martinez Ybor was a Spaniard who'd made his fortune in Cuba but was forced to leave by Spanish colonial powers because he sympathized with Cuban independence. Ybor's partner came to Tampa looking for a source of guavas, since guava jelly had become very popular in the United States during the 1880s. Instead, they saw the potential to transform Tampa into the world's cigar capital. Ybor created modern Tampa out of a marshy backwater, and the population grew from about 700 in 1880 to more than 37,000 residents in 1910. The best cigar rollers left Cuba for Tampa by the thousands. Ybor brought an expanded port, paved roads, hundreds of new homes and businesses, streetcars, insurance companies and health clinics. "Miami was not even spit in the eye when Tampa was doing business with Havana," Manteiga said.

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The Manteiga family history is intertwined with the heyday of the cigar business. His grandfather Victoriano was a lector in a cigar factory, a revered position in the community. Lectors were hired by a cigar factory's workers, out of their own pockets, to read news, history and serialized novels to them while they rolled cigars all day long. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics" depicts an Ybor City lector who reads Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to the workers, the kind of reading material Manteiga said was typical.

"A lector was like the village priest without the religious aspect," he said. Victoriano Manteiga was also deeply committed to Cuban independence and was no stranger to José Martí, the poet and revolutionary who visited Tampa more than 20 times to raise money for the Cuban rebels. The message to start the revolution, according to legend, was smuggled into Cuba hidden in a cigar rolled in Tampa. "My grandfather had a pretty good-sized FBI file," Manteiga said.

Manteiga's father, Roland, took over publishing the newspaper in the mid-20th century.A flashy character who wore white suits, lots of gold and a trim mustache, he held court in the very corner of La Tropicana where we ate lunch - except that Roland kept a private phone at the table so he never missed a news tip, gossip or rumor. A framed, yellowing newspaper on the wall behind the table bears the headline, "Get the feeling Roland Manteiga hears everything?" Manteiga assumed the role of publisher in 1998 and has taken after his grandfather, crusading to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Near the end of our lunch, I asked Manteiga if he spoke Italian, the newspaper's third language. He laughed. "I don't even speak Spanish!"

• • •

Two blocks up from La Tropicana, in front of Centennial Park, where a pack of wild roosters roams, I met 63-year-old Wally Reyes - a historian with a Ph.D from the University of Florida and a master cigar roller - at the Ybor City State Museum. Reyes also held a Guinness World Record for rolling the world's longest cigar, until 2011, when someone in Cuba broke the record.

Reyes guided me on a fascinating historical walking tour of Ybor City. On our tour, we visited a typical cottage from the turn of the 20th century, where a cigar worker might have lived. These were good jobs, Reyes told me: A good cigar maker might have earned $20 per day, which back then was more than a teacher or doctor.

Reyes talked about the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s, when the cigar industry largely collapsed. Some of the abandoned factories have been repurposed, but many still sit derelict. One landmark, V. Guerrieri, burned down in 2015. A revival of Ybor City began in the mid-1990s, coinciding with the cigar fad of that era. But mostly the district has become known as a nightlife area. Only about 3,200 people live in Ybor City now, compared to more than 20,000 in its heyday.

In a quiet area a block off Seventh Avenue, near a former Spaghetti Warehouse, sits José Martí Park. Before we walked through the gate, Reyes stopped me. "If you stand here, you're in the U.S., but if you walk into this park, you're in Cuba," he said. That's because this 0.14-acre park with a bright white statue of Martí and Cuban flags has actually been owned by the Cuban government since 1956, before Fidel Castro came to power. It has been the scene of clashes between pro- and anti-Castro groups over the years.

We wandered past Vicente Martinez Ybor's original cigar factory, where Martí delivered a speech in 1893, and which since 2010 has been owned by the Church of Scientology. Reyes told me that since he had consulted on the multimillion-dollar historical restoration, he was allowed inside. We walked past the security guards with crisp white shirts and earpieces, past the framed photos of L. Ron Hubbard and copies of "Dianetics," and toward the glassed-in testing room - the infamous area, with timer clocks on desks, where recruits to Scientology are put through a 200-question personality test, the Oxford Capacity Analysis.

"This is where the cigar gods reside," Reyes said, seeming to ignore the creepiness. That's because the Scientology testing area is literally where Señor Ybor's desk used to be. On one wall, amid quotes from Hubbard, is a plaque announcing that, according to legend, the first Cuban sandwich was created in this building. People in Miami might, of course, take huge issue with this, but Reyes insists it's true. He said he has documentation, a diary, that confirms Ybor's company executives invented the Cuban sandwich because they believed the cigar rollers were eating too much at lunch and they wanted to curtail the afternoon siesta.

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Back at the museum, Reyes showed me the working reproduction of a traditional cigar roller's station. "This was station 149, my station," he said. "I was assigned to this table in 1968. I was 14."

Reyes' family had come from Puerto Rico in 1917 to work in the cigar business. By age 29, Reyes himself had become a master roller. "But this was a hobby," he said. "My grandfather always told me I had to go to school." Yet while Reyes pursued a Ph.D and taught and conducted research, he also ran one of the last cigar factories to operate in Tampa, Gonzalez Habano Cigar Co., which closed its local factory in 2008 and moved production to Honduras. The company moved to Honduras, where production costs are cheaper - a familiar story in Ybor City. A few months after Gonzalez Habano closed, the iconic producer Hav-A-Tampa also closed (putting 500 people out of work) and moved operations to Puerto Rico.

Reyes sat down at his old workstation. "This was the last table we used, in the last month of production." As he talked, he idly flattened out a dark tobacco leaf, with a motion he'd clearly used thousands of times before. "The saddest day was when I had to turn in the key," Reyes said. "I never realized I'd be one of the last."

Certainly a number of small artisan shops - traditionally called "buckeyes" or "chinchales" - still make hand-rolled cigars in Ybor City. Just walk down Seventh Avenue on any day and you can see them at work in the windows, at buckeye shops like Tabanero Cigars or Ybor Cigars Plus. At the end of our tour, Reyes took me to perhaps the best producer of hand-rolled cigars on Seventh Avenue, Nicahabana. There, I met the young owner, Yordany Ogando, who arrived in Ybor City from Cuba 17 years ago with his family when he was teenager. Ogando's grandfather had started this shop but died suddenly a few years ago, and Yordany had to step up to keep the tradition alive. "Yordany is like my son," said Reyes. "His grandfather asked me to help him out."

On this day, three people were rolling cigars in the shop. I ordered a Café Bustelo coffee and chose a robusto with light Connecticut wrapper. Reyes suggested a punch cut. I asked if he'd join me in a cigar. "No, no," he said. " It's too early. I only have one after 3 p.m."

• • •

A major reason for the decline of the cigar business - and one largely unspoken in the telling of Ybor City's history - is, of course, our society's realization that smoking of any kind is not a healthy pastime. For decades, and for good reason, smoking has been targeted by the government. Premium cigars, however, have largely skirted the same kind of strict regulation faced by cigarettes because of the assumption that cigars are much less addictive, they're not to be inhaled and, since good cigars are expensive, they are never marketed to kids and sold mostly in adults-only artisan shops. But several large cigar companies ruined this narrative by selling cheap flavored cigars - strawberry, vanilla, tropical fruit, chocolate, Irish cream, etc. - targeted at young consumers, and these products opened the door for a crackdown by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 2009, Congress authorized the FDA to regulate cigars, pipes and e-cigarettes, and just before my trip to Tampa last year, the agency issued a wide-ranging ruling, declaring premium cigars would now be regulated like cigarettes and chewing tobacco. The FDA's ruling requires cigar makers to obtain costly testing and approvals before they can sell any new products, and to relabel cigar boxes with health warnings. Further, any cigar that came on the market since 2007 will have to be tested, a massive industry undertaking. While many health experts applaud the move, the cigar industry says that the new rules will put many cigar makers, especially small- to mid-size producers, out of business. Last year, three trade groups filed a lawsuit against the FDA, and since January bills that would exempt traditional hand-rolled cigars have been reintroduced in Congress. But the regulatory future under the Trump administration is uncertain.

Eugenio Gonzalez takes rehumidified, previously dry tobacco leaves from a machine at the J.C. Newman cigar factory.

One late afternoon while I was in Ybor City, I visited J.C. Newman Cigar Co. - which has been in business since 1895 and is now the last remaining cigar factory in Tampa. Eric Newman, the company president and grandson of the founder, gave me a tour of their El Reloj, a clock tower that is a Tampa landmark.

"This is walking back in time," Newman said as we strolled the creaky wooden floors of the factory, built in 1910. "This company has been through two world wars, the Great Depression and the Cuban embargo," Newman said. "But our biggest threat now is from our own government."

Newman took me into dimly lit blending rooms with 10-foot piles of dried tobacco filler and into humid rooms where huge burlap sacks of dark, moist wrapper leaves sit in wooden bins. "A premium cigar is 100 percent natural - there's no slurry like in a cigarette. . . . We're not putting chemicals into them. Yes, there is nicotine in a cigar, but the way you get nicotine into your system is to inhale it. Ninety-five percent of cigar smokers do not inhale."

Most cigar industry people I spoke with feel fairly confident that, sooner or later, there will be some type of exemption or compromise for those who produce hand-rolled cigars, such as the buckeye shops like Nicahabana on Seventh Avenue. But the issue is more complicated for J.C. Newman, which uses old-time machines from the early 20th century to assist in its cigar making. Newman insists his company's process is still hands-on and "artisan" - his machines make about 840 cigars per hour, compared with mass-market machines that make 225,000 per hour - but so far the government doesn't agree.

We passed a burlap sack of tobacco with stenciled letters spelling out "ESTELI, NICARAGUA." Some of the first cigars I ever smoked came from this town. Newman said they already have 625 employees making cigars in Nicaragua. "In the end, we could just make all our cigars in Nicaragua, and it would be cheaper. But we are determined to keep the cigar industry alive here. Cigars are the heart and soul of Tampa."

• • •

On my last evening in Ybor City, I began at Tampa Sweethearts cigar shop. I also met the owner, who shook my hand and said: "Hi, I'm Arturo Fuente." For a cigar smoker, this is the equivalent of meeting, say, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel in a whiskey bar. When I asked Fuente why he's in Tampa and not the Dominican Republic, he said, "We're from Tampa!"

After the sun set, Seventh Avenue went from sleepy to lively, with lots of revelers crowding the bars. Around 10 p.m. I ended up at Lion's Den, a popular speakeasy-style cigar and cocktail bar. It happened to be Burlesque Night. Every half-hour or so, a tattooed hipster named Gwendolyn with a Betty Boop bob, and sometimes a flapper headdress, came out to dance.

Lion's Den has a huge humidor with an overwhelming number of cigars from around the world. Next to me in the humidor, I heard a guy who seemed like a regular speaking with the sales assistant, named Carly, who carried five types of cigar cutters on a chain. "I always forget the names of the ones I like!" said the regular. "I know the one I had was nutty and floral."

"Was it more cashew or peanut?" Carly asked.

"I think it was more like a sweet flower."

A half-dozen young men wearing black T-shirts that read "Maduro Marauders" stood at the bar. I spoke with one of them, and he told me the group was "sort of like cigar sommeliers" and puts on cigar-related events. "People are experts in wine and spirits or they're experts in cigars," he said. "But no one knows how to pair drinks and cigars. And if you don't pair them correctly, you ruin both."

Later, for my second cigar, I spent time with K.J. Chordis, Lion's Den cigar manager, who explained that bigger isn't always better. "Everyone thinks they want a big fat cigar, but the thin ones with the smaller ring gauge have more flavor," he said. For my last cigar in Ybor, I chose a long, thin Dominican lancero called Long Live the King, from hip boutique producer Caldwell Cigar Co.

I returned to the bar with my lancero (which actually was kind of nutty . . . cashews?). I watched a man and woman smoking cigars and chatting with Gwendolyn, the dancer, about her haircut. At one point, the woman literally blew smoke into Gwendolyn's face, then realizing her faux pas, said, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to blow it in your face!"

Gwendolyn shrugged and said, "Oh honey, I'm used to it."

I sipped my rum and smoked my final cigar of the trip - and probably the last cigar I'd be smoking for quite some time once I returned home and recommitted to fresh air and running and healthy living. Taking in the scene at Lion's Den, I thought about Graham Greene and seediness and the sense of longing for something lost. I'm still wondering how to be properly nostalgic for cigars, but I sincerely hope Ybor City survives long enough for us to figure it out.

For Ybor City, a historic cigar town faces a cloudy future 03/19/17 [Last modified: Monday, March 20, 2017 9:01am]
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