Tampa – Alan Marchman and Shane McAndrews of North Carolina have made Ybor City their favorite destination spot for the past three years, calling it a "hidden gem" for gay singles and couples, a place where they always feel at home.
"When you think of gay districts, you tend to think Miami or the Keys," said Marchman, 32. "You don’t think Tampa. A friend in the Keys told us about 'GaYbor' and we came here and were surprised."
"It feels like an untapped vacation spot," said McAndrews, 41. "Yet it feels like it’s been here forever."
In fact, GaYbor – a coalition of gay and gay-friendly businesses that began on the west end of a popular nightclub and restaurant strip – began taking shape only about four years ago. It was an interesting addition against the backdrop of historic Ybor City, a former cigar-rolling district with Latin roots. With cobbled streets and red brick buildings, the neighborhood has an old-time feel but also a progressive mix of eclectic shops, bars and restaurants that have attracted visitors for the past 20 years. It includes a 12-block area (12th to 18th street and from 4th up to Palm) and offers a trolley and an Amtrak stop nearby for transportation
The GaYbor District Coalition began, unofficially, when longtime partners Carrie West and Mark Bias moved their gay-themed gift shop MC Film (1901 North 15th Street) from St. Petersburg to Ybor City in 2007. At the time, there were about five gay businesses operating near the west end of Seventh Avenue, the main commercial drag, and more on the way. West and Bias created colorful little maps, locating gay and gay-friendly businesses for visitors.
As the GaYbor District began gaining more recognition among city officials and the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, GaYbor members furthered their influence. They began adding events and festivals and other finishing touches to what they felt was too drab of a neighborhood.
"We were like, ‘You guys don’t decorate for Christmas?’" West said. "So we just got ribbons and white lights and huge red bells and strung them through the streets. We started a storefront decorating contest. I like to think we put a bit of color into Ybor City."
Now, the district has a number gay-friendly bars, restaurants and hotels, including dozens marketed directly to gay visitors. There are very few establishments on 7th avenue that are not members of GayBor. There are all kinds of eateries, from Syrian food to Columbian to Italian.
The Hampton Inn & Suites and Hilton Garden Inn both offer discounts to businesses in the neighborhood, and the lesser-known Ybor Resort and Spa boutique hotel is the Tampa Bay area’s only gay bathhouse.
Hamburger Mary’s (1600 East Seventh Avenue), which serves American fare and Mexican, Asian, Cuban, and Mediterranean-inspired dishes upstairs in the Centro Ybor square, is open until 3 a.m. on the weekends and regularly hosts events such as "Drag Bingo," "Mary's Cabaret" and "Mary's Got Talent" (hosted by Alisa Summers from RuPaul's Drag Race.)
Like the rest of Ybor City, GaYbor is liveliest at night, when the bars and restaurants fill up and the dance music pumps through the streets, often for charity events. G.Bar (1401 East Seventh Avenue) has been around since the inception of the GaYbor movement and is a favorite among local gays and lesbians. Bradley’s on 7th (1510 East Seventh Avenue) has more of a sports bar vibe during the day but becomes more flamboyant at night, when gay DJs arrive and create a dance party.
For wilder, high-energy clubbing, the Honey Pot (1507 East Seventh Avenue) has three levels and is often mixed with gay and straight patrons attracted to the music and drink specials. Czar (1420 East Seventh Avenue) also caters to a mixed crowd and plays alternative and dance music, with the occasional concert. For a laid-back atmosphere, Centro Cantina is an outdoor bar with frozen drinks and an open balcony.
West said it’s been fun watching GaYbor gain attention as a hot gay tourism spot, seeing more and more out-of-state, and sometimes foreign, visitors, as well as an influx of local residents moving to the area. He’s proud of how it began, with just a few gay businesses hoping to find a successful fit.
"We’re grassroots," West said. "And we’re expecting to be here forever. We love Ybor City."
For more information about the GaYbor District Coalition, visit www.gaybor.com. To read about a variety of gay and lesbian Florida events, click here.