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East Ybor may join historic district

Not so long ago, east of Ybor City, Fran Costantino's father carved burial monuments at a business her grandfather brought from Sicily.

Jeraldine Williams Smith's father fixed cars in an auto shop near the house he built by hand.

Victoria Giunta's father grew Italian vegetables on a large plot behind the home her grandfather built.

Today, Costantino runs a real estate office where her family once carved marble.

Williams Smith plans to build a law office on the site of her father's auto shop.

Giunta is restoring the home where she lives with her father, who still tends a small garden.

The three members of the East Ybor Historic and Civic Association consider their neighborhood a Tampa treasure and want to preserve it becoming by part of the Ybor City Historic District.

The Tampa City Council was expected to vote on the expanded boundaries on Thursday. A final decision is set for Dec. 5.

If adopted, all new construction and renovations in East Ybor must be regulated by the Barrio Latino Commission, the district's architectural review board that approves the style and materials of buildings.

East Ybor is unfamiliar to most Ybor City visitors, who typically end their walking tours at the Columbia Restaurant on 22nd Street, the neighborhood's western border. It's an eclectic mix of homes and businesses dating to the early 1920s where black, Italian and Spanish families lived and worked during Ybor's cigar-making days.

In the 1970s, the neighborhood gradually went downhill. Crime increased and several businesses closed.

Many residents, however, stayed.

"We want to make it nice for the people who never left," said Costantino, who launched the expansion effort nearly three years ago. "The (historic) designation will keep homes from being destroyed and will increase property values."

Williams Smith left East Ybor to pursue careers in Tallahassee and Africa but returned to live in the house where she was born and raised. Near her planned law office at 12th Avenue and 26th Street, she envisions a park, lights, trees, new street signs and nice yards.

She wants the neighborhood of her youth, with its strong sense of community.

"We remember the eclectic life of our community, how the music sounded, how the aromas of the food smelled," Williams Smith said.

New construction in the area should reflect its history, she said. She also has lobbied the Barrio Latino Commission to ensure low-income residents would not be burdened by costly regulations if they renovate.

Victoria Giunta is one of the neighborhood's renovation pioneers. She's restoring the home her grandfather built at 11th Avenue and 24th Street, where she lives with her sister and father.

"We're really losing the historical structures. It's a pity," the retired librarian said.

Despite the changes, her father, 88-year-old Don Giunta, still tends a farm at the house. He grows Italian vegetables, including gidi (Swiss chard), carrots, beets, broccoli, radishes, basil, parsley, fava beans and fennel. Some are from seeds his father brought from Italy.

Like the old days, he sells the harvest to neighbors.

If the expansion of the district goes through, supporters hope the idea catches on to other neighborhoods in the Ybor area.

"It's our hope that this is just the beginning," Giunta said.

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