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In 'Cigar City,' Paul Wilborn brings Ybor City in the '80s back to life

Published May 2

The 1980s in Ybor City are the stuff of legend.

Paul Wilborn was there for it, as witness and player. As a former journalist, he knew he had to write about it.

"But it wasn't a literal decade," he says. "It was a magical decade."

The result is Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto, Wilborn's debut book. Its linked short stories are fictional but based on the real '80s Ybor scene.

Populated by artists and musicians and street poets, Cuban cooks and retired generals and drag queens, Cigar City spins sometimes surreal stories that beautifully capture that unique time and place. (Disclosure: I was there, too, and have known Wilborn since then.)

These days, Wilborn is executive director of the Palladium, an eclectic performance venue in downtown St. Petersburg that is owned by St. Petersburg College.

"This is the most competitive performing arts market in the country," Wilborn says. "We try to fill a niche that's not filled elsewhere. We make money on jazz acts. Nobody makes money on jazz."

That touch for conjuring successful arts events might have begun in his Ybor City days. His roots there go deep: His maternal great-grandparents immigrated from Sicily and met and married in Ybor. "So we were right there. My father's family was American, but on my mother's side was this huge Italian family. We used to have to rent a hall for our Christmas Eve dinner."

By the time Wilborn was born at Tampa General Hospital in 1952, families were moving out of the once-thriving neighborhood. His parents moved to Temple Terrace when he was 4; his mother still lives in the house he grew up in.

He graduated from King High School and the University of South Florida. By the late 1970s, he embarked on a journalism career, working for more than a decade at the Tampa Tribune, where he covered everything from the police beat to fashion.

During that time, he started hanging out in Ybor City. It was nothing like the bustling town built around the cigar industry that his great-grandparents knew. First machine-made cigarettes displaced cigars with consumers, and cigarmaking jobs dwindled. Then two interstate highways slashed through Tampa, and Ybor City was one of the neighborhoods devastated by them.

"By the '80s," Wilborn says, "all the families had moved out of Ybor. Some of them still worked there, but urban renewal had cleaned out the neighborhoods. They had all moved to West Tampa."

La Septima, Ybor City's main street, was still anchored at one end by the historic Columbia Restaurant; at the other was El Goya, a three-story gay nightclub nationally famous for its drag shows and multiple themed bars. But in between lay mostly empty storefronts; the Ritz Theater stayed in business by showing porn films.

Into the vacant cigar factories and other quirky spaces came artists and actors and musicians, drawn by dirt-cheap rents and Cuban food and by the old-world charm of Ybor's architecture — and by each other's company.

Out of that, in the late 1970s, came something called the Artists and Writers Group. "I was involved," Wilborn says, "but really it was all Bud."

That would be Bud Lee. An acclaimed photojournalist who worked for Life, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other publications, Lee was an artist in other media as well. He settled in Tampa with his family and became the center of a group of Ybor denizens.

"I was in a band, and we needed a place to play," Wilborn said. Lee and fellow photographer and artist David Audet wanted a place to create large-scale art installations. A small group coalesced around the idea of a party, and thus was born the Artists and Writers Ball.

It was conceived as a goof on the gala balls put on by the krewes associated with Gasparilla. In contrast to those exclusive parties attended by the city's elite, the Artists and Writers Ball was improvisational, bohemian and open to everyone.

Lee and Audet led squads of volunteers in decorating venues, most often the Cuban Club, with fantastical decorations made mostly from salvage. Wilborn booked multiple bands. The very first ball sold out.

"That photo of me in the book is from that party," Wilborn says. "I'm holding a briefcase, and it's full of money. You would have actual tickets for sale, at places like La France (a vintage clothing store in Ybor), and people would go in and pay cash for a ticket. I was the one who went around and collected the money."

The balls drew crowds of up to 3,000, most of them wildly costumed based on themes like "Bad Taste in Outer Space" and "Cowboys and Indians in Love." Getting up and down the stairs in the four-story Cuban Club was "a nightmare. There was an umpire school in St. Pete, so Bud got all these young guys in umpire uniforms to direct traffic. But they got overwhelmed."

At a typical ball, punks pogoed in the basement while an impromptu kickline formed in the top-floor ballroom to New York, New York. All the weird little architectural niches in the Cuban Club turned out to be perfectly suited for naughtiness.

As for the elites the ball was meant to mock? "The pirates loved it. They started coming to our party."

For a while, the balls were the party not to be missed. The Guavaween parade was an offshoot and another wacky success; there was even a short-lived arts magazine called Tabloid.

But none of it ever made money. "We never pulled a permit, we never formed a 501(c)(3)," Wilborn says. "I think after a few years we finally got some insurance for like three or four hundred dollars, because the Cuban Club insisted."

The group that ran the balls basically paid themselves by going out to dinner at Bern's once the event was over. "Afterwards we'd think, we did it again, and nobody died."

By the '90s, the balls had faded out. Wilborn left the Tribune to write for the then-St. Petersburg Times, where he won the Paul Hansell Award for Distinguished Florida Journalism.

A few years later, he moved on to Los Angeles. He had written several plays that were produced and wanted to try his hand at screenwriting, which proved, he says, to be "not very satisfying."

But while in L.A. he met Eugenie Bondurant. She had a busy career acting in movies and TV, but the New Orleans native missed the South. Wilborn pitched newly elected Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, an old friend, for a job, and was hired as the city's director of creative industries.

He and Bondurant married and now live in St. Petersburg. She teaches acting and continues to act herself — she was just cast in the movie I Saw a Man With Yellow Eyes, starring Harry Connick Jr. and Katherine Heigl and currently filming around Tampa Bay.

Wilborn says he first became familiar with the Palladium when he and Bondurant performed their cabaret act there with their band, Blue Roses. "After I was hired" as director in 2007, he says, "the first person I fired was me."

As busy as he is with the local arts scene, Wilborn didn't forget those Ybor City days. Lee died in 2015. Not long after, Audet began posting some of the thousands of photographs he and Lee took at the balls and elsewhere in Ybor online. "He had all these photos, and he was posting them, and I kept thinking, maybe it's time to do something," Wilborn says.

With the support of what he says is "a great writers group," he began working on the stories. "I wrote them all in about two years, pretty much in the order they appear in the book." He worked with a professional editor to polish them, then went looking for a publisher.

He found one right in the neighborhood. Cigar City is the first book to be published by the new St. Petersburg Press, a project of local entrepreneur and publisher Joe Hamilton. "They were looking for a book by a local writer to kick off their press," Wilborn says, "and I brought them a finished, professionally edited book. It was a matter of right time, right place."

Cigar City has mentions of the Artists and Writers Balls, but its stories are about the people who lived, partied and created in Ybor City in that magical decade.

Audet's photos illustrate the book, and photos by Lee appear on the front and back covers. "I think Bud should be more successful in his afterlife," Wilborn says.

In between are nine stories, from the sweetly surprising "Quarter Moon," about a young woman who meets the mysterious General Avenal and discovers there might be rare treasure in his eerie apartment in El Pasaje, to "Almost Happy," a heartbreaking story about the terrible toll of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Together, the stories make the time and place shimmer back to life. If you were there, you'll be glad to remember it all. If you weren't, you might wish you had been.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto

By Paul Wilborn

St. Petersburg Press, 190 pages, $24.95

Meet the author

Paul Wilborn will discuss and sign his short story collection at these events.

2 p.m. Sunday, Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

6 p.m. May 10, with photographer David Audet, Arts Exchange, 515 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg. Hosted by Tombolo Books, with Cuban food and sangria.

5 p.m. May 14, with David Audet, Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa.

6:30 p.m. May 23, Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE.

6:30 p.m. June 13, Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

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