Ybor City is a historical jewel nestled in the outskirts of downtown Tampa, Florida. Despite having lived not once, but twice in different parts of Tampa, I’ve spent relatively little time in this neighborhood. This is an even greater sin considering my Cuban heritage, and the fact Ybor City is steeped in Cuban history. Any time the word “historic” is used in conjunction with a city or area, I picture cobblestones, rough sidewalks, and lots of steps. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how wheelchair accessible Ybor City is.
Ybor City was founded as an independent town in 1885 by a group of cigar manufacturers led by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and was annexed by Tampa in 1887. The original population was mostly composed of Cuban and Spanish immigrants who worked in the cigar factories. Italian and Eastern-European Jewish immigrants followed shortly thereafter and established many retail shops, farms and grocery stores, box factories, print shops, and other enterprises which catered to the cigar industry and its workers. Ybor City grew and prospered from the 1890s until the late 1920s, by which time its factories were annually producing almost half a billion hand-rolled cigars, giving Tampa the nickname of the “Cigar City”. The combination of the Great Depression, the end of World War II, and urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s led to the abandonment of Ybor City, which fell into a state of disrepair. Beginning in the 1980s, the old business district centered on 7th Avenue (La Septima) began a slow recovery, first as a bohemian haven for artists and, by the early 1990s, as a popular nightlife and entertainment district.
I have several friends who live in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area whom I have been meaning to see for some time. I’m a rather successful slam poet in Florida, so I decided to participate in a Tampa-based poetry slam on December 10th in Ybor and invite my Tampa friends. It would also give me the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite places to eat in the whole world, the original Columbia Restaurant.
I was definitely apprehensive about this visit. I had been through Ybor City many years ago, and while I didn’t take account of accessibility at the time since that was pre-MS, I remember it being very old. Very old in terms of cities generally translates to inaccessible, so I was a bit concerned about how my evening would go. Well, my middle name is adventure, so it was time to revisit Ybor on wheels!
My first stop was to check into my hotel, a Hampton Inn on the west end of Ybor City’s main drag, East 7th Avenue. It’s an older hotel, but very wheelchair accessible. The bed was a
decent height for me to get into, the bathroom was clean and easy to navigate in, and although I didn’t use the accessible tub (I need in a roll-in shower and one wasn’t available), there was a bench ready under the sink and there were ample grab bars with a removable shower head. My favorite part of the room? At least five regular outlets and two USB outlets right on the night stand between the beds! Perfect for charging phones, Kindles, and power wheelchairs.
After dropping off my overnight bag, it was time to roll the eight blocks to Columbia to meet my adventure traveling/motorcyclist good friend Azure from My Ticket to Ride at Columbia for an early dinner before heading to the poetry slam. The street had been closed off to traffic due to a holiday parade set to start about two hours later, and there were few people on the sidewalks. As I rolled, I took note of the entrances to the dozens of bars, clubs, restaurants, tattoo shops, and stores along the way. Much to my surprise, the vast majority of them had flat entrances. I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised considering what a huge tourist draw Ybor City is, but so are many other historic neighborhoods in the US that aren’t nearly as accessible. The sidewalks were generally in good shape, with a few rough curb cuts and some exposed cobblestone that I managed with some care in my power wheelchair.
I was glad I arrived at Columbia early for my 5:30pm reservation as it was already a madhouse of people waiting. The restaurant has multiple entrances but the main entrance has one step, so I had to be guided around through the back and a few dining rooms to reach the check-in area at the host stand. Getting to my table was easy, and while navigating the crowded dining room to the bathroom was an adventure, the bathroom itself had ample space with a large accessible stall I had no trouble using.
After dinner, we walked a few blocks over to the site of the poetry slam, a modern café called Tre Amici @ The Bunker. It also had a flat entrance, and although space was tight that night due to chairs being set up for the slam, it was otherwise easy to roll around and get to and from our table. It’s a wonderful venue for slam poetry, and everyone there had an amazing time! Afterwards, I headed back to my hotel via East 8th Avenue to avoid the Saturday night bar/club crowds on the main drag, and had no problems with the sidewalks or curb cuts.
Being a Florida native, first generation Cuban American, and having spent some time living in Tampa, I have a special place in my heart for “Cigar City.” So the next time you’re in Central Florida, make sure you take some time to take an easy roll through Ybor City!
Would you like to visit Ybor City? If so, visit my travel agency website at Spin the Globe/Travel, where Florida is one of our featured destinations!