Tampa's history was built on the thriving cigar industry that cradled an immigrant population of cigar workers, shopkeepers and business tycoons.
The first cigar factories sprang up at the turn of the last century, northeast of downtown Tampa, in what became Ybor City. The community is named for cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban immigrant who also left his imprint and name on the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.
The bungalows, casitas and mom-and-pop shops in V.M. Ybor were populated largely by cigar workers and factory owners. The neighborhood shares a rich history with Ybor City.
Both areas are part of a national historic district created in 1990. Ybor City largely has been the focus of locally created historic districts, though portions of V.M. Ybor have been included.
That likely will change.
The Tampa City Council recently gave initial approval to expanding the boundaries of Ybor City's local historic district to include most of V.M. Ybor. A final vote is set March 7.
If the larger district is approved, Ybor City and V.M. Ybor will be made whole — historically, at least — decades after construction of Interstate 4 geographically severed the two.
"It would be a great shame if the city (of Tampa) didn't do all it could to preserve what is there," said Kelly Bailey, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association and Crime Watch.
Residents of the northern neighborhood began lobbying for an expanded historic district about four years ago after a spate of arsons in vacant houses.
"There simply wasn't another place like it," said Kim Headland, past association president. "We should be proud of it and try to protect it."
The general borders of the expanded district would be Nebraska Avenue, 21st Avenue, 15th Street and Columbus Drive. It would add 320 structures to the existing district, 225 of which are considered to be of historic value.
Those borders initially extended east to 22nd Street, but some East Tampa residents objected. They said historic status would be too restrictive and make home repairs too costly. City officials pulled the eastern border back to 15th.
Councilman Frank Reddick said members of the East Tampa Business & Civic Association are opposed to that area being added to the local historic district. He asked about plans for the area.
"Parts of the national historic district continue east past 15th," said Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager. "We're not prepared to extend into this area at this time."
Although national recognition is largely symbolic, Fernandez said a local historic district can "safeguard the important collections of our historic past."
It gives homeowners options for funding rehabilitation projects through tax credits and grants.
"I think it's going to be a positive for economic growth," Bailey said. "People will see the value. It raises awareness of homeowners to keep a closer eye on what investors are doing."
In the future, investors can't buy properties and ignore the neighborhood's character when they do repairs. And, she said, "It will keep speculators from tearing down houses."
The Barrio Latino Commission has oversight of major exterior changes to structures in the district.
"We see this as a tremendous way to preserve the historic fabric," Bailey said. "Every house that gets torn down from the 1900s and 1920s is never coming back. It almost makes me cry to think what Nebraska (Avenue) used to be. You never get history back."