Years back, when Tampa's historic Ybor City began to morph into the club-and-restaurant mecca it would become next, some people worried.
Gone, they fretted, would be Ybor's unique Latin flavor, like the old-timers who know the proper way to dunk Cuban toast into cafe con leche over talk of politics in loud cafes. Gone would be the rich legacy of immigrant families and cigarmakers and generations of Ybor's born and raised. Why, Ybor City might well become generic Gaps and Starbucks as far as the eye could see.
In some ways, the place managed to hold on to the best of itself. The air smells of cigar smoke and roasted coffee. Ybor is raucous nightclubs in glorious old brick buildings and tables where you can sit smoking a Cuesta Rey and watch the world go by. It is trendy restaurants and the kind where you order a Cuban sandwich at the counter, pressed, please, as if there were any other way.
And Ybor City is chickens.
By most accounts, the wild chicken population numbers about 100. You can hear a rooster's loud, proud crowing from your table at an outdoor cafe or spot a hen and her chicks pecking around a parking lot, a funky detail to make the place that much more interesting.
Ybor's fowl date back more than a century, when their forechickens were less touristy kitsch and more, well, dinner.
But they are uniquely Ybor, like the ghosts of family names that still grace the old buildings, our own version of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed cats.
Alas, not everyone loves the chickens.
A licensed trapper showed up after someone — he won't say who — complained they were strutting into a business and scaring off customers. (Question: If you are scared of a chicken, doesn't that make you … never mind.)
The trapper planned to take most of them to havens in other counties. But the love many residents plainly have for the chicken apparently changed his heart.
Instead, he will tag them with little color-coded anklets (like those bracelets bars give out to show you're old enough to drink, and very Ybor) to monitor the population.
"I like them," says the trapper, Mike Martinez. "But I can understand both parties."
But, oh, it's on. Martinez found a hen and some chicks he believes were poisoned. No question, there is an anti-chicken bias out there.
So the pro-chicken faction plans a rally, a celebration of the chicken if you will, tomorrow at the home of Tommy Stephens at E Fifth Avenue and N 19th Street at 3 p.m.
Save Our Historic Chickens, the signs will say, and Chik-fil-A Says Leave My Family Alone, Chik-fil-A being the name of an Ybor hen. And: If You Don't Like Chickens In Ybor City, Move to Carrollwood. Ouch. And, well said.
Rooster Tommy, as his friends call him, is the guy who puts on an annual funeral/party for a beloved deceased rooster, but that's another tale for another day. He says Ybor's cars, cats, dogs and hawks control the chicken population just fine. Tough life, to be an urban chicken.
Turns out even the mayor of Tampa is pro-chicken.
"They were here first," says Pam Iorio. "I think I'm going to come down firmly on the side of the rooster."
I'm with the mayor. Viva Ybor, and long live the chickens.