Read an Excerpt
Ten years ago Joanne, Sue, and I went snooping around Ybor City, looking for ghost stories. Ghost hunting wasn’t so popular then, and there weren’t many resources to rely on. It was a hot day. As we ambled down Seventh Avenue, I spied King Corona Cigar Bar & Cafe and suggested we pop in for a beerand air conditioning.
As soon as we walked in, Joanne got a tingling sensation with goose bumps on her armsand it wasn’t the air conditioning. We struck up a conversation with the owner, Don Barco, and asked him about any unusual activities in the building. Don chuckled, “Actually, we do have ghosts here.”
“Wait. Don’t tell us,” I replied. “ Joanne is really sensitive. Could we walk around a bit just to see what she might find?”
“Sure,” Don said. “Let me show you the place, and I’ll tell you a little of the history.”
Joanne led the way, poking into nooks and crannies, while Don related the history of Ybor and King Corona to Sue and me as we followed along.
Ybor City, now a neighborhood of Tampa, was founded in 1885 by a group of cigar manufacturers led by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, who wanted to move their cigar businesses from Key West to escape the high costs, labor strife, and transportation problems. The Tampa area was an excellent spot, near enough to Cuba to get Cuban tobacco cheaply and easily. And with a new railroad line working its way across Florida, distribution of finished cigars across the entire United States would be possible.
Thousands of tabaqueros, tobacco workers, in Key West were recruited to come to Tampa for the chance to buy land and own their own homes, opportunities they never had in land-poor Key West. Señor Martinez-Ybor even built houses for his workers and sold them just above the building cost.
Ybor City was an immediate success. Tampa annexed it in 1887, over the protestations of Ybor himself, and by 1900 it had paved streets, brick buildings, a variety of fashionable shops, restaurants, street lighting, and a population of 16,000. And from its very beginning, it was a wide-open town.
A diverse population of Cubans, Italians, Spanish, Romanians, and Germans gave Ybor City an exotic, European atmosphere, which was only enhanced by the many social clubs formed by the various ethnic groups. The Cuban Club, the German-American Club, the Italian Club, El Centro Español, among many others, all celebrating their own ethnic holidays and fetes, gave Ybor City an almost continuous party air.
The factories turned out millions of cigars a year. At one time Ybor cigar factories produced and shipped over 500,000,000 cigars hand-rolled by skilled torcedores, and the money flowed. Clubs, restaurants, and bars were packed nightly, and the good times seemed never to end.
Prohibition in 1920, the Volstead Act, closed the taps on much of the alcohol across the country, but in Ybor City, with its tightly knit ethnic groups and clubs and numerous bars, the liquor still flowed freely. Speakeasies began popping up all over the town, and criminal elements soon took advantage of the loosely enforced regulations. Murders, muggings, and extortion were common. There were rumors of tunnels dug between buildings and across streets from one building to another, so that criminals might escape if a nightspot was raided.
With the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, lawlessness escalated. Hundreds were unemployed, and men were willing to do anything to feed and house their families. Bolita, an illegal game run by organized crime, became very popular. Charlie Wall, a notorious gangster, organized it into a huge, profit-making business and used the proceeds to invest into other questionable ventures. Corruption was rampant at all levels of government with rival gangs buying elections and competing with each other for control. The 1930s and 40s became known locally as the “Era of Blood.”
Ybor City slowly deteriorated through the Depression years and the decades following until the 1980s, when an influx of artists, looking for cheap and interesting studio space, began moving in. Slowly, the once-empty buildings began filling with nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, and the crowds grew. Today Ybor City is thriving once again. On Friday and Saturday nights, Seventh Avenue is closed to vehicular traffic, and a carnival atmosphere prevails.
But there is a dark side to Ybor. The many years of turmoil and mayhem have left their mark. A medium once told my friend and Ybor City resident, Joe Howden, that a thin black river of negativity flows beneath Seventh Avenue and affects everything that happens there. And there is a high level of paranormal activity throughout the area.
King Corona Cigars is no exception, but as Don was about to tell me something about the place, Joanne, who was leading us into the back hallway, stopped. “Ugh,” she called out. “There’s blood back here. Something horrible happened!”
Don was at first alarmed. “What do you mean? Blood? Where?”
“No. I don’t mean there’s blood here now, but there was. Something really bad happened back here. Someone spilled a lot of blood. It’s so negative!” Joanne turned to get away from the area.
“It could be,” Don replied. “I think a lot of nasty stuff happened in this place. Why don’t you head up the stairs?”
Joanne and Sue started up to the next floor. Don continued telling me about the building. It had been a dress shop owned by Raul Vega for about sixty years. After the Vega years, it became an upscale women’s store, La Nica Fashions, for another twelve. Then the building sat empty for about two years until Don opened King Corona Cigars.
Don’s family has been in the cigar business for five generations, and he was anxious to renovate the building and open the store. But it needed a lot of work, so he enlisted the help of friends like Joe Howden and Joe’s girlfriend at the time, Sarah. Joe, who is also an artist, has worked at the store ever since its opening and has his own tales to tell.
He was working late one evening, painting and installing display cases. Joe was by himself in the store, when he sensed that he was not alone. He didn’t have any weapon except the hammer he was using, and the phones hadn’t been installed yet. He looked around to see who was there and saw a very large man standing in the back of the store where the hallway is now located. Tensing, Joe tightened his grip on his hammer and started backing toward the front door. Just as suddenly as the man appeared, he evaporated.
On another occasion a few days later, Sarah was on a ladder painting the walls above the bar, when she saw a young girl in the back of the store. The girl was dressed in a long, old-fashioned dress and just stood there staring at Sarah. She called to the girl, with no response. Then, when Sarah started down the ladder to approach the young woman, she disappeared.
Don also has had his share of inexplicable experiences. He has felt many times that someone was watching him. He has heard voices and strange unidentifiable sounds, seen various people who have melted away right in front of him, walked into pockets of frigid air. Don mentioned that a medium once saw a man she believed to be Raul Vega walking around the store, and many customers have reported seeing strange people and feeling weird sensations from time to time, especially in the back of the store.
Don and I were just reaching the top of the stairs when we heard Joanne shriek. We hurried down the hall and into a storeroom, almost bumping into Joanne as she rushed out, Sue following.
Joanne was breathless. “There is a girl back there. She’s cowering in a corner, and she is terrified. The energy is so negative I had to leave. She is absolutely petrified.”
We tried to get Joanne to go back in to see if she could discover more details, but she refused. She was faint, so we went back downstairs and chatted for a bit while she collected herself. Finally, we said our goodbyes and leftgoing down the street for an excellent lunch at the Columbia Restaurant.
* * *
A few months ago as I was researching information for this book, I thought again about King Corona Cigars. Joanne was otherwise occupied, but I contacted another sensitive friend, Sheila Steen, and asked if she’d like to visit YborI promised her a good lunch at the Columbia.
Sheila, Sue, and I walked in and were welcomed warmly by Don and Joe. I hadn’t seen either in several years, so we spent some time catching up. Then Don gave us another tour. I purposely hadn’t told Sheila anything about the place and had asked her not to research it.
I was astonished. As we headed into the back hallway, Sheila said, “Oh, gruesome. Something bad happened back here. There’s blood all over the place!” The same reaction Joanne had had ten years before. Don, Sue, and I were amazed.
Then we went up to the second floor and back into the storeroom, which had now been emptied and sealed up. Again, Sheila found the same young girl Joanne had. The girl was cowering in the corner. She seemed lost, out of place. Sheila went into the corner under the staircase leading up to the next floor and squatted down for a few moments, then came back out.
“Oh, that poor girl. She was pleading, ‘Por favor,’ (please), and ‘La gente no saben..,’ (people don’t know )” Sheila felt an overwhelming aura of violence, terror, and secretiveness. She was as anxious as Joanne had been to leave the place.
Later during lunch at the Columbia we hashed over the events of the day. I felt sadness for the girl in the storeroom and was very curious about her fate. But I was also exhilarated that two different sensitives had had the same experience ten years apart.