Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Secret History of The Castle: From Radical Politics to Goth Dance Club



The Castle when it was The Labor Temple c. 1930's.

I think I was 19 when I went to the Castle for the first time. I wandered around with black marker X’s on the backs of my hands and danced to Depeche Mode while sucking on a clove cigarette while trying, and failing, to get older folk to buy me drinks. It was a wild smoky mess full of people in various states of kinky dress and undress, with deafening industrial beats, a light show, and often a strange film playing on screens over the dance floor. It was glorious, less like a real dance club than the fictional dance club you would see depicted in action movies of the 1990’s (for a time it seems that every movie was required to have a scene in a club or at a rave- See Blade, The Matrix, Hackers, Etc.). It was wonderful. The last time I was at The Castle was a couple of months ago, and it was, pretty much, exactly the same. There’s something wonderfully comforting, about how little the place changes, as if Ybor City has its own secret portal to the 1990’s hidden in an ornate Spanish baroque style building on 9th Avenue.

The building itself is fascinating, and I spent much of my 20’s frequenting The Castle without knowing much about it. I just went to drink and dance. I had no clue that  the place was the scene of some very dramatic history. It was built as a home for the Aguila Oro, one of Ybor City’s many fraternal organizations, however, by the 1930’s the building became the Ybor Labor Temple, which served as a meeting hall, offices, and headquarters for both Cigar Makers Unions and Restaurant Workers Unions.

Ybor City has a rich history of labor organizing, going back to Don Vincente Ybor’s original factory. In the 1880’s Ybor established workplace conditions and benefits that would be considered extremely progressive by today’s standards. Workers in Ybor’s factories made solidly middle-class wages, had access to healthcare, education, and retirement benefits (through Ybor City's social clubs), and elected their factory foremen (this always blows my mind). When the factory was sold to The Havana-America Corporation after Ybor’s death, it was the attempt to roll back many of these policies that spurred workers to organize. From the 1890’s until the 1930’s, Ybor City’s history is marked with strikes, protests, lock-outs, and street fights. And when a nationwide Depression hit in the 1930’s, the ever-present tensions were heightened, coming to a boiling point at the Labor Temple on November 7, 1931.

Though Ybor City had always had its share of revolutionary fervor, The Depression served to push many into even more radical directions. Much like we saw during this last Recession, people felt fed up with the systems and governments that led them down the road to economic devastation. In 1931, many of Tampa’s workers found a leader in a 23-year-old Mexican-American cigar worker named Juan Hidalgo, who also went by Jim Nine. Hidalgo was known as a passionate speaker, and he united multiple disparate unions into the Tampa Tobacco Workers Industrial Union around the issues of dropping wages, unemployment, degraded working conditions, and most radically, Jim Crow Segregation.

The Union had planned to hold a march through the historically black section of East Tampa, just north of Ybor (at that time referred to as The Scrub), on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The marchers were to carry banners that read ‘Black and White Unite and Fight,’ and to hold a series of speeches calling for racial unity around the common cause of economic reform. Mayor Robert E. Lee Chancey (who has only just been inaugurated after a contentious and violent election (future article)) reportedly told the group that he would consider their permit to march, but then left the city to visit his sick mother in Georgia, referring the matter to the city council. The Council met on the matter at 2:00 in the afternoon on the day of the march, only a few hours before it was scheduled to begin. They turned down the Union’s request for a permit and mobilized the police department to break up the crowd that had started gathering at the Labor Temple.

After the decision had been made, the Union decided to try to go over the city’s head and petitioned the Governor to allow the march, and for several hours that afternoon, the Labor Temple was the site of a tense stand-off while they awaited word of the Governor’s decision. At around 6:00 that evening, union member Felix Marrero emerged from the Labor Temple with a piece of paper and announced that they had received a telegram from the Governor that ordered the police to stand down. Marrero was tackled and beaten by police officers, then dragged away and arrested. This touched off a wave of unrest among the crowd that soon grew into a full-scale riot as police tried to clear the street. One cop was hit with a brick, and another was shot in the shoulder, countless people were beaten by police, and eighteen were arrested, including union leader Juan Hidalgo.

The Labor Temple riot touched off what would become Ybor City’s last general strike. originally meant to be a three-day protest of the arrests, the strike stretched through the middle of December due to a manufacturer lock-out and the expulsion of the cigar factory Lectors (who would read out loud to people during the work day), who were seen, by factory owners, as a revolutionary influence on workers.

Like in previous strikes, factory owners and the Tampa Police Department retaliated heavily against striking workers- people were beaten, jailed, evicted, deported—and street fights between Union members and vigilante “Citizens Committees” (sometimes referred to as The Cossacks of Tampa) were common. Editorials in the Tribune framed the strike as nothing less that a full blown Communist Revolution in Tampa. In the end, it took an injunction from a federal judge, who threatened to send The National Guard to occupy Ybor City, to end the strike. This was the last general strike in Ybor’s history, and the end of the factory Lectors, and in the years that followed, tobacco companies moved toward further mechanization of their processes.

Even after the strike of 1931 was broken, Ybor’s Labor Temple continued to be an important meeting place and center for activism. During the Spanish Civil War, it became headquarters for The Democratic Popular Committee to Aid Spain, a group formed to support the Republicans in Spain. They took donations of clothing, food, and money, - and several young men from Ybor City joined the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The Spanish Civil War was felt deeply in Ybor; children dressed as Anti-fascist soldiers went door to door collecting canned food and scrap metal for the war effort, and After the bombing of Guernica, Ybor’s citizens held a somber funeral march to protest the U.S. policy non-intervention, and a former cigar factory Lector, Leopoldo Gonzalez, wrote a popular song (you can listen to it here) from the battle cry of ‘No Pasaran!’ The Labor Temple, now The Castle, was the nerve center of this activism.


Ybor's Democratic Popular Committee to Aid Spain

I often wonder if places, in some way, remember the events that happen in them, if somehow the brick streets outside The Castle remember when they were the site of bloody clash between cops and protestors, or if the walls remember chants of ‘Black and White Unite and Fight’ or ‘No Pasaran!’ It’s strange, going back to dance at The Castle after knowing these things. I still enjoy it, but history has weight to it, and knowing the stories behind a place tends to change perception, and it becomes, not only a secret portal to the years my own youth, but one that goes much further back.

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