Ybor City is known for many things: its Cuban, Spanish, and Italian roots; its cigar factories and casitas; and, in more recent years, its nightclub scene. But Paul Wilborn’s short story collection, “Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto“ (St. Petersburg Press, 2019) – winner of a 2019 Florida Book Award for General Fiction – resurrects a forgotten time in between, following the interconnected lives of nine searching souls drawn like moths to the fluorescence of Ybor’s artistic renaissance.
The book’s unique cast of characters is united by the theme of wanderers finding themselves. There’s Paige, exiled from Miami by an unplanned pregnancy, who reinvents herself as a costumer to Ybor’s burgeoning drag scene. Then there’s Angel, a semi-closeted gay man who must plan a funeral for his friend Frankie, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic, while battling his own fears about the disease. Then there’s Daniel, the fledgling reporter at the The Tampa Tribune who profiles, then abandons, the prophetic, self-declared “Street Poet of Ybor” with disastrous consequences. From many places, these seekers find a kind of solace in Ybor, a home where the paint’s beginning to peel, good black beans and rice (with raw onion) can always be found, and each night brings a glorious new revelry.
Cigar City is wonderfully dreamlike. Wilborn’s stories strike the mind’s eye like an old photograph, the vivid lives of his characters leaving a slightly ghostly impression against a brooding atmosphere of urban decay, drugs, and the various heartbreaks that have led them to Ybor. Many are based on his own experiences as a fledgling journalist for the now-shuttered Tampa Tribune. Wilborn also worked in the creative circle that founded Tampa’s Artists and Writers Group and launched the annual Artists and Writers Ball as a spoof on Tampa’s better-heeled Gasparilla celebration. Setting the scene for each story are striking photographs two other members of the Tampa Artists and Writers Group, David Audet, and Bud Lee.
Like one of the many parties it depicts, this book plunges you into deep and rambling conversations, sometimes merry and sometimes melancholy, with a curious sequence of neighbors. You may leave as I did – with a certain sense of fondness and wishing you lived here – or you may leave feeling like you’ve had a few too many. But either way, you may find your view of today’s rapidly gentrifying Ybor City changed by this trip down memory lane.