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Portraits of Ybor City: The Ferdie Chronicles


By Ferdie Pacheco

University Press of Florida, $24.95

Reviewed by James Harper

It's funny how a neighborhood never stays the same. What seems just right to one generation can suddenly give way to something else entirely. Naturally, this is what happens when people move on or die. But sometimes the transformation is quicker. No sooner had the trendy art gallery and bistro types discovered Tampa's faded Latin quarter in the late 1980s, for example, than they were overrun by cruising teenagers and a sudden explosion of nightclubs and bars.

In any case, the passage of time in a cherished neighborhood is a ripe subject for nostalgia. While real estate speculators vie for the future of Ybor City's brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies, Ferdie Pacheco has written an affectionate memoir of Ybor in the 1930s and '40s, when he was a boy.

Pacheco comes from old Ybor's last generation, before prosperity and assimilation drew the descendants of Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants into newer Tampa neighborhoods. Pacheco himself grew up and moved to Miami, where he became Muhammad Ali's personal physician and later a boxing commentator on national television.

Pacheco warns readers that his book is a slice of personal history, not a comprehensive study of his community. But like every good memoir, this one resonates richly with the sights, sounds, social rhythms and family attitudes of a particular time and place. He describes the all-day waves of coffee drinkers at the Columbia Cafe, "the meeting place of all Ybor City," where Pacheco was a waiter for two summers during his mid-teens.

"In those days it never closed," he writes, "and so attracted the early-morning hunters, fishermen, produce dealers, dairymen and farmers, and then throughout the day the businessmen and workers of Ybor City. At night, the players, lovers, crooks and sports people came in and stayed until the wee hours."

Besides telling stories about some of these patrons, including Ybor City patriarchs like Eli Witt and Santo Trafficante the Elder, Pacheco's chapter on the Columbia also delivers a fascinating account of the family that has owned the restaurant for nearly a century, including the crises that arose as one generation passed to the next.

Pacheco's own experiences as a Columbia waiter, including one memorable encounter with the supposed crime boss Trafficante, are told with a full appreciation of his youthful ignorance and folly, saved by good luck and the hidden charm of family connections. Pacheco lived first in the large house of his maternal grandfather, a Spaniard by way of Mexico who served as the Spanish consul in Tampa. When the grandfather died in 1938, Pacheco's father, a drugstore owner, bought a smaller house in tonier Tampa Heights. Other houses on the block soon were acquired by other relatives.

During the Depression and war years, most Ybor City men either walked or rode the street car to work. Vendors brought every necessity to the housewife at home, beginning before dawn with a loaf of Cuban bread left hanging on a nail by the door. In one lyrical passage, Pacheco remembers the smell of talcum powder on his grandmother, his abuelita, when she fixed him an after-school snack; the smell of "perspiration mingled with perfume and freshly cleaned suits at the Sunday tea dances" at El Centro Espanol, which the whole community attended; the aromas of stale cigars and fresh coffee at the club where his father played dominoes and cards; the "clean pharmaceutical smells" of his father's drugstore and "the antiseptic smells of Trelles Clinic. When did drugstores stop smelling like drugstores? When did hospitals stop smelling clean?"

Pacheco's nostalgia extends to the fun he had riding the street cars, playing pranks, attending movies and tea dances _ innocent fun which he believes today's youth is too affluent and jaded to appreciate. So in many ways, Pacheco's memoir has a broader American theme, a longing for old values, strengthened by War and Depression.

Of course, a raconteur like Pacheco must fill his memoir with good stories. Sometimes the writing doesn't have quite the same comic timing of his oral presentations, but they are good stories, the kind that used to be told on front porches and over family dinner tables. His tale of the prominent Ybor City doctor and his three successive wives, including the strong middle one, the daughter of a courtesan, defines a community that knows its rogues and characters and loves them all the more.

Pacheco never gets too serious. Organized crime, which gave Tampa a national reputation along with cigars and good weather, is seen mainly by reflection, in the description of a door-to-door lollipop vendor who actually sold bolita (an illegal numbers game) to housewives, or in an appreciative chapter about crime boss Charlie Wall, who cunningly eluded his adversaries until, well, almost the end of his life.

There are glimpses of racial segregation and ethnic tension. One favorite pastime of amorous young Ybor City men, apparently, was to visit the dark balcony of the Tampa Theater downtown, where willing Plant High cheerleaders from Anglo South Tampa were said to be found. A photo of an Ybor City political poster includes a platform phrase, "Colored persons in colored districts," but Pacheco doesn't discuss this.

He does, however, discuss his futile attempt to break the segregation line on a 1930s street car, and his boyhood vow to his father to fight racial injustice, a vow he tried to keep as an adult. And, in perfect tone, he tells the brilliant and touching story of what he learned from Sweet Sam, a black man who arrived at his father's warehouse one rainy night. That story, a testament to wisdom, perseverance and love in a small Southern city, is more than worth the price of the book.

James Harper, a Times staff writer, is a third-generation Tampa native.