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After shooting, Tampa’s historic Ybor City wrestles with its future

“This is not an Ybor problem,” one local business and homeowner said of gun violence. “This is an American problem.”
 
To walk along Ybor City's Seventh Avenue is to walk through history. Sunday added another chapter: A shooting left two dead and at least 16 injured, one of a cluster puncturing Halloween celebrations from Texas to Ohio in a country long gripped by gun violence.
To walk along Ybor City's Seventh Avenue is to walk through history. Sunday added another chapter: A shooting left two dead and at least 16 injured, one of a cluster puncturing Halloween celebrations from Texas to Ohio in a country long gripped by gun violence. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 31, 2023|Updated Oct. 31, 2023

TAMPA — Walk east along Seventh Avenue and admire the brick buildings and the recently restored archway lights. Pass the new hotel and the old drinking hole and the sign that proclaims this to be one of “America’s 10 Great Streets.”

Mind the strutting free-range chickens and the puffs of smoke from the man enjoying a cigar on a stretch of sun-soaked sidewalk. Read the historical placard that outlines how this, Tampa’s Ybor City, is “the cradle of Cuban independence.”

Pass the pizza joint that sells two slices and a drink for $6 and where, less than 48 hours prior, staff had shuttered the windows and ducked for cover after hearing gunshots. Approach the corner where the van from a local TV station now sits and where a police officer chats with a restaurant server about the horrors of the weekend.

This is where people crumpled to the asphalt in the early hours of Sunday morning, the sky black but the street ablaze with the flashing lights of first responders called to another act of gun violence in the U.S.

To walk along Seventh Avenue, which carves through Tampa’s Latin Quarter, is to walk through history. Sunday added another chapter: A shooting left two dead and at least 16 injured, one of a cluster puncturing Halloween celebrations from Texas to Ohio in a country long gripped by gun violence.

In Tampa, the shooting, which police say broke out between two quarreling groups, has stirred debate about the evolving identity of one of the city’s most storied neighborhoods. It has prompted both calls to temper late-night activity and concerns that local businesses and culture will be pushed out.

Ybor is in a “transitional phase and has been for years,” Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times Monday, from a nighttime-focused economy to a greater mix of residential properties and daytime businesses.

“We are a very safe city,” she said, noting that more than 50 officers were in the area that night. “This isn’t a law enforcement problem. This is a societal issue where individuals are choosing to settle grievances with firearms.”

Emmitt Wilson becomes emotional near the scene where his son, 14-year-old Elijah Wilson, was killed along Ybor City’s 7th Avenue in Tampa on Sunday.
Emmitt Wilson becomes emotional near the scene where his son, 14-year-old Elijah Wilson, was killed along Ybor City’s 7th Avenue in Tampa on Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Even before the shooting, Castor said, she had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss Ybor’s future with a handful of business leaders and landowners, including developer Darryl Shaw, who is bringing 5,000 homes to the area in the next 10 years. How will the tone of the meeting change given the weekend’s events?

“I don’t know that it’ll be different, though the speed with which that transition occurs may be amplified,” the mayor said, declining to offer specifics.

“To be a healthy, vibrant neighborhood, Ybor City needs a greater balance of residences, restaurants, shops and other businesses that add to the unique character of the Latin Quarter,” Shaw said in a statement. “But in the immediate future, hard conversations must take place that focus on curtailing an environment that fosters violence like Sunday’s shootings.”

Settled by Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants, Ybor has had many faces: a thriving community built on a fabric of cultures, the epicenter of Tampa’s cigar industry and a haven for local artists. Its wide sidewalks, once thronged with people heading to and from tobacco-rolling jobs, are now lined with bar patrons.

Local business and homeowner Tom DeGeorge has dedicated decades to fostering safe nightlife and preserving the eclecticism of this increasingly pricey pocket of Tampa. The weekend’s events, he fears, could reduce Ybor’s rich history into crime headlines.

“Ybor does not deserve this kind of black eye and heartbreak,” he said. “This is not an Ybor problem. This is an American problem.”

Before Sunday turned deadly, his music venue, the Crowbar, was hosting a concert to raise money for youth music lessons. He’d been home from work for less than an hour when his phone lit up with a message from a friend, containing the two words he feared most.

“Active shooter.”

It was just before 3 a.m. and the friend was hiding at a nearby bar. After a weekend of heartache and little sleep, DeGeorge said, he left the mayor a voicemail Monday, urging her to bring stakeholders together.

“Local businesses can be part of the solution. They help to build up the community,” he later told the Times. “They are not the problem.”

“Ybor does not deserve this kind of black eye and heartbreak,” said Tom DeGeorge, owner of music venue Crowbar.
“Ybor does not deserve this kind of black eye and heartbreak,” said Tom DeGeorge, owner of music venue Crowbar. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Fran Costantino has worked for years to shift associations with Ybor from bullet casings and crime scene tape to small businesses and cultural events. Her family arrived in 1906 from Sicily. Today, she cherishes the weekly Saturday market and the annual lighting of the Christmas tree as part of the area’s renaissance.

“This incident just set us back 10 years,” she said of Sunday’s shooting. “It’s a blow to those of us who’ve worked so hard to make everyone feel safe here.”

In the wake of the shooting, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was quick to advocate for cracking down on code violations, arguing that bad actors — such as nightclub owners who allow crime to proliferate on their properties — must be held accountable.

“That doesn’t mean we’re anti-club or that there isn’t a place for people to be at 3 o’clock in the morning. Ybor can be that place,” he told the Times.

“But you have to eradicate the cancer,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to see this tragedy again and again.”

In the first nine months of this year, there were 43 instances of violent crime in Ybor, one fewer than the same period in 2022, according to Tampa police data. A department spokesperson said it was not possible to provide nonviolent crime data by publication time.

First-time City Council member Gwen Henderson, whose district includes Ybor, sees an opportunity to bring business owners, police, elected officials and residents together to craft a safe, prosperous neighborhood for all.

“This is a test of my resiliency and leadership,” she said. “The sad truth is that this could have happened anywhere.”

As videos of the weekend’s violence continued to spread online and families of the 14-year-old and 20-year-old who were killed grieved, Tyrell Phillips appeared in a downtown courtroom on Monday, dressed in a suicide prevention smock, his wrists handcuffed. The 22-year-old was arrested on a second-degree murder charge.

On Seventh Avenue, cigar smoke and music mingled in the air as restaurants prepared for the dinnertime crowd and the night drew closer.

One of Ybor City’s famous roosters wandered among the evidence markers on Sunday.
One of Ybor City’s famous roosters wandered among the evidence markers on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]