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East Ybor farms kept the cigar industry fed. Now, sisters work to save the last one.

Developers call all the time, but the owners have secured historic landmark status for the Giunta cropland.
Tessa Giunta, left, and sister Victoria run the last farm in East Ybor City. “We grow the same variety that our father grew,” Tessa Giunta said. “We have fennel, chard, 11 types of lettuce.”
Tessa Giunta, left, and sister Victoria run the last farm in East Ybor City. “We grow the same variety that our father grew,” Tessa Giunta said. “We have fennel, chard, 11 types of lettuce.” [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 16, 2020
Updated Mar. 22, 2020

TAMPA — Developers see dollar signs in the Giunta property, nearly a full city block in the highly sought-after urban neighborhood of East Ybor City.

One real estate agent estimates that more than $3 million in new homes would fit on the 1¼-acre parcel at 2401 E. 11th Ave.

But the Giunta sisters plan to leave things just as they are. Their family has been farming the land for years.

“We get calls,” said Tessie Giunta, 67.

“They’re short," chimed in sister Vicki Giunta, 73. "We’re not selling.”

The sisters have called the land home since they were born. And they want to preserve some reminder of the days when East Ybor City teemed with farms.

Theirs is the last one.

“It is part of our history," Tessie Giunta said.

Now, the city of Tampa agrees.

The City Council recently approved the Giuntas’ request to designate the farm a historic landmark, one of around 60 in the city.

The new status provides a layer of protection from development. Future owners of the property will need city permission to remove the farm or make changes there.

Related: East Ybor residents say their neighborhood is ready for big things

“I don’t just look at it as the Giunta homestead and farm,” Tessie Giunta said. “I look at it as a microcosm of what was once here."

The Giunta farm at 2401 E. 11th Ave. is the last reminder of a day when East Ybor City was covered by cropland and dairies.
The Giunta farm at 2401 E. 11th Ave. is the last reminder of a day when East Ybor City was covered by cropland and dairies. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

East Ybor City lies east of 22nd Street, also the edge of the area known by the city as Ybor City proper — home to the Seventh Avenue business and entertainment district and once the center of the local cigar-making industry.

Today, East Ybor City is primarily a residential area. But in decades past, it was known as "the breadbasket of Ybor,” Tessie Giunta said, where farms raised the food that fed a work force of up to 10,000 cigar factory employees.

The Giunta name is also known in Riverview, where Giunta Middle School is named for the sisters’ brother Don who drown in 2004 while saving the lives of two boys swept off by the current into Honeymoon Island in Dunedin.

The Giunta sisters’ grandparents immigrated in 1907 from Sicily to East Ybor, where their grandfather worked in a celery field. Around 1922, they said, the celery field’s owner divided the land and sold it, mostly to employees including the sisters’ grandfather.

He started his own vegetable farm and, in 1924, built a 2,000-square-foot bungalow where the sisters still live.

Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder eagerly cast his vote to extend protections to the farm.

“I am a fan of all historic preservation,” Dingfelder said. “But this one touched home with me because my grandfather was a celery farmer in central Florida and traveled here as a produce buyer. Maybe my grandfather did business with their family in the 1940s.”

By the 1940s, Domenic Giunta — the sisters’ father — had taken over the farm operation.

Domenic Giunta told the Tampa Bay Times in 1994 that his small farm was among 25 of similar size in East Ybor and the neighboring Gary-Town district. A number of family-owned dairies also operated in the area.

Domenic Giunta tends to his East Ybor City farm in 1992. His father immigrated from Sicily and worked on a celery farm in the area before starting his own.
Domenic Giunta tends to his East Ybor City farm in 1992. His father immigrated from Sicily and worked on a celery farm in the area before starting his own. [ Times (1992) ]

“Our neighbors had six or seven cows,” Vicki Giunta said. “Behind us was an elderly lady with goats and she sold cheese and milk. Across the street was the best watercress.”

Domenic Giunta died in 2007 and the sisters have maintained the farm since then.

“We grow the same variety that our father grew,” Tessa Giunta said. “We have fennel, chard, 11 types of lettuce.”

They also have 16 chickens and a fruit orchard with avocado, pear and orange trees.

The sisters have one employee who helps with the heavy lifting, but they do much of the planting themselves and operate the tractor their father purchased in 1950.

“If I didn’t plant, I’d be a terror to live with,” Vicki Giunta said with a laugh.

Real estate agents say that land could be fertile in another way.

“There is hardly anywhere left in Ybor to build,” said Fran Costantino, an agent and East Ybor City resident. The Giunta land “is a diamond in the rough" among a handful of empty lots there.

What’s more, most older East Ybor City homes are protected from tear-down under the umbrella of the broader Ybor City Historic District.

The Giunta house is protected by the district but the farmland was not. That’s why the sisters sought a separate designation.

Costantino, who stopped the city from rezoning most of the area’s residential lots to commercial and industrial in the early 2000s, was pleased the sisters succeeded.

“It needs to remain a farm," she said. "It’s our history.”

Still, historic structures can be torn down with city permission if they are considered beyond salvageable. Costantino worries any future owners might let the farm fall into disrepair so it can be developed.

“Demolition by neglect,” she called it.

The Giunta sisters still use a tractor their father bought in 1950 at their East Ybor City farm.
The Giunta sisters still use a tractor their father bought in 1950 at their East Ybor City farm. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

On the real estate website Zillow, the value of the farm is placed at $266,083. The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website puts the market value at $191,251.

Developer Ronnie DeSantis said it could be worth more.

DeSantis is building two 1,300-square-foot shotgun homes on an empty lot at Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street in East Ybor. He estimates the asking price will be up to $300,000 each.

How many houses like those might fit on the Giunta property?

“Between eight and 12,” DeSantis said.

That’s not to say he’s hoping for such an outcome.

DeSantis and the Giunta sisters attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Ybor City and he lives across the street from them. He hopes future generations will see the farm as worth saving.

“It’s comforting to look out my front door at it,” he said. “It’s like a beach view.”

Historic designation opens the door to grants that future owners might apply for to help maintain the farm, the sisters noted.

Perhaps, they said, their place might become a museum to honor Ybor City’s farming heritage.

“That part of Ybor’s history has been forgotten, for the most part,” Vicki Giunta said. “Maybe our homestead can help it survive.”