West Tampa’s birth came fast on the heels of this new burst of economic activity. Hugh C. Macfarlane (1851-1935), a transplanted Scotsman, moved to Tampa in 1883 to practice law and was appointed City Attorney in 1887. One thing led to another, and in 1892, Macfarlane purchased and platted 200 acres of land just west of the Hillsborough River for development. Macfarlane began offering factory sites and three story brick buildings to manufacturers. The first factory was a failure because workers refused to cross the Hillsborough River on boat to reach the wilds of West Tampa. So Macfarlane, with several other investors, built an iron drawbridge across the Hillsborough River at Fortune Street and later financed a streetcar line. Dozens of cigar companies and thousands of people moved into the new city resulting in capital investments of over $2 million in West Tampa, a staggering sum in those bygone days. Three short years later, on May 18, 1895, West Tampa was incorporated, boasting 3,500 residents with businesses and community services.
At the same time, Tampa’s cigar-makers supported the Cuban independence revolution by pledging one day’s wages per week for the cause. The message to begin the uprising on the island was delivered in a cigar rolled at the O’Halloran Factory in West Tampa. West Tampa got a further boost when Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders trained at Benjamin Field, the current site of the Howard Avenue Armory.
The boom years produced several important institutions in the new city. In 1894 Cubans built Sociedad Cespedes, a three-story social club that loomed above the business district at Main and Albany. The Centro Espanol de West Tampa at Howard Avenue and Cherry Street served arts and cultural needs. In 1916 Sicilians organized to build the Sicilian Club (La Sicilia); the building remains at the corner of Howard and Spruce Street. These clubs provided social, recreational, music, dance, theatre, education, medical clinics and social services “from cradle to grave.” The mutual aid societies played an important role in the immigrants’ adjustment to their new world.
Early West Tampa families enjoyed a rich social life that included literature read daily by lectores (readers), social clubs, sports clubs, cafes and restaurants. Spanish-language newspapers flourished. Families enjoyed park and beach trips on Tampa Electric’s Streetcar system to Ballast Point Park, Sulphur Springs, DeSoto Park, La Columna Park and Macfarlane Park, which opened in 1909. They swam at Frazier Beach, at the end of today’s Kennedy Boulevard and ate crab enchilada at Rocky Point Beach. And in 1913, the County’s first and only remaining Carnegie Free Library opened on Howard Avenue.
By the early 1900’s, West Tampa had become a bustling City. Indeed, West Tampa was Florida’s fifth largest city in 1905. Growth and prosperity continued for the next two decades but the winds of change blew strong in the 1920’s. In 1925, exercising its new found political power that came with its own prosperity; the City of Tampa annexed the City of West Tampa. Next came the Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression that caused infinite hardships on Tampa’s cigar workers. Major layoffs led to many departing for New York City or Havana.
WWII marked the end of the golden era of cigar manufacturing in Ybor and West Tampa. Powerful societal, economic and geographic forces had profound impacts on West Tampa. For example, Urban Renewal destroyed an entire neighborhood known as Roberts City in the early 60s. The state of Florida constructed I-275 through the heart of West Tampa and the lure of Tampa’s expanding suburbs attracted many West Tampa residents. Consequently, West Tampa lost many important small businesses, further eroding the community’s social fabric.
Today, West Tampa remains a neighborhood with a rich legacy of traditional and historic buildings and an urban pattern that creates a village within a city. Add to this its grid pattern, strategic location between the Central Business District and Westshore Business District, healthy inventory of traditional buildings, and a growing demand for urban living by people from all walks of like, and it is easy to see why West Tampa is poised for an urban renewal.