Sunday, June 24, 2018

‘Gangsters, Pirates and Cigars' photo exhibit shows early Tampa


Tampa, by historical standards, is a young city — less than 200 years old — but it has a lot of juicy history packed into those decades. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts has embarked on a two-part visual chronicle of Tampa's development with the first now on view, and it's rich.

"Gangsters, Pirates and Cigars" begins in the mid 19th century and ends in the mid 20th century. This isn't a Burgert Brothers show. That trove is the go-to archive for most photography shows of Tampa past, and there are a few here, but the sources are varied, which means that stylistically, there is more variety, too.

The establishment of Fort Brooke by the U.S. Army in 1824 was the real beginning of the city, coming several years after the Florida territory was bought from Spain. Before that, Spain and Great Britain, which also controlled it for a time, had little interest in its west coast, and indigenous tribes populated much of the area. The outpost's main job was to enforce a treaty that forced the Indians onto an inland reservation.

The fort was built on land now occupied by the Tampa Convention Center and a waterfront park. You'll have the first of many then-and-now moments when looking at the moss-laden oaks and wooden buildings in a rural setting and the terminus of Franklin Street at a grassy pasture.

Skip ahead to the late 1880s when Tampa received two big boosts: Phosphate was discovered and Henry B. Plant brought in railroad and shipping lines. And the glamorous Tampa Bay Hotel.

That transportation lured Vicente Martinez-Ybor to the town, and the exhibition documents the cigar industry that underpinned Tampa's rapid growth into the 20th century.

Martinez-Ybor's story is fascinating. In 1832 he left his native Spain to avoid mandatory military service. He was 14. He settled in Cuba and built a lucrative cigarmaking empire. After threats from the Spanish colonial government there for his support of the Cubans fighting for independence, he fled to Key West in 1869 and moved his cigar business there. But the Keys were remote and shipping his cigars difficult. He decided to move his operation to Tampa because the climate was good for the tobacco leaves he imported and shipping was convenient. In 1886, he opened a huge factory in what became Ybor City. We see the vibrant community the Cubans established in photographs of the town at both the high and low ends. (There are photos identifying brothels, which seemed numerous, juxtaposed with elegant ladies on verandas.)

Italians and Jews also immigrated in large numbers, opening businesses that catered to the working population. The huge central gathering place for Italians, the Italian Club, opened in 1912 and still stands at 1731 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor. In an image from 1930, we see Nina Tagliarina Ferlita crowned as its queen.

Early photographs of downtown Tampa look like a western frontier town, but by 1913 a photo shows the juncture of Lafayette (now Kennedy) Boulevard and Franklin Street jammed with cars and horse-drawn carriages. The Ferman family was responsible for many of those cars through their Chevrolet dealership, and Fred Ferman in 1912 is shown sitting in one. Local businessmen concocted the story of Jose Gaspar and began the annual Gasparilla Festival. (A wall label points out that the guys messed up that title for the macho event. Translated, it means "Little Miss Gaspar.")

The Tampa story has a dark side. Bolita, a game similar to today's lottery, was popular in the community. Charlie Wall, a rebellious member of a prominent Tampa family, became involved with fixing the game and eventually presided over an underworld operation involving gaming, bootlegging and prostitution. Almost all public officials and law enforcement officers bribed or were bribed by Wall and his gang. He was the city's major crime boss by the 1930s and Tampa had a national reputation as a city that couldn't conduct an unrigged election. Wall forged a bloody path across the city, with organized crime-related murders of his rivals.

But by the late 1940s, the Trafficante family, which had a tighter organization and more connections nationally, had taken control. Wall himself was murdered at his home in 1955, a case which remains unsolved. A newspaper photograph of the crime scene shows his bare feet on a carpet, his body hidden by a chair. A good thing since his head was bashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. The Ghosts of Ybor: Charlie Wall, a 60-minute documentary by Pete and Paul Guzzo, describes the story of that crime-ridden era.

I'm a big fan of exhibitions such as this one and enjoyed it. I would have enjoyed it more with better wall labels and a more coherent installation. It jumps back, forth and around in time and subject matter with no transitional narratives. The labels are also lacking. Some of the photos have no identification or not nearly enough explanatory text. A few have discrepancies in the dates. I filled in a lot of gaps by doing my own research. I'm looking forward to part two. It begins in the 1950s with the rise of air-conditioning, which really made us a year-round place. And I hope my curiosity for details is better sated.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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