Strolling behind tour leader Scott Deitche through Tampa's Ybor City on a spring evening, I found my feet in the present but my brain back in a dark past — say, Nov. 10, 1936.
That's when a black sedan rolled up to the corner where our tour group is standing. From the murky car, gunmen blasted sawed-off shotguns at their target, George "Saturday" Zarate, who amazingly survived and escaped to Cuba, Deitche says.
The sawed-off shotgun apparently was the weapon of choice for Tampa's version of "goodfellas" — mob gangsters whose battles became so ugly in the 1930s that "Life" magazine called Tampa "the hellhole of the Gulf."
Of course, all this was a long time ago. Ybor's streets now reverberate with history by day and legal party times by night. But Deitche's stories from the past are so vivid that I'm still half looking out for that black sedan.
Not 'The Godfather'
Sometimes we tend to imagine gangsters as "honorable," Deitche says, but the truth in many cases was closer to the movie "Goodfellas" than to "The Godfather." Some guys would "kill you for a dime," he says.
Not long before our tour, Deitche has visited the new Mob Museum in Las Vegas, which he has made sure includes a picture of Harlan Blackburn, the late Central Florida crime boss. (The museum's full title is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.)
By day, Deitche is an environmental scientist; one of his books is titled "Green Collar Jobs: Environmental Careers for the 21st Century." But by night, he digs into true-crime research, writing books about the historic underworld of Tampa ("Cigar City Mafia" and "The Silent Don," about Santo Trafficante Jr.) and beyond.
In the beginning: Bootleggers
It was Prohibition that galvanized the underworld in Tampa in the 1920s, Deitche says. Through the city's port, bootleggers were able to import molasses and other materials to make illegal booze. A summer thunderstorm recently revealed one of the old tunnels under Ybor, he says; these underground areas, about 3 feet tall, were dug to hide moonshine.
Orlando historian Steve Rajtar has written about one such low tunnel, dating from the 1920s, under Orlando's Orange Avenue, and I'm wondering if its original purpose could have been the same.
In Tampa, mobsters branched out into narcotics and gambling early on, Deitche says; by 1925, Tampa was the largest port of entry for narcotics in the country.
Much more than mob history
There's lots of other history to be learned in Ybor City beyond tales of the underworld, as fascinating as they are.
If you visit, don't miss the Ybor City Museum in the former Ferlita Bakery, at 1818 9th Ave. See especially the short documentary film "Ybor City: A Passage in Time," with comments by historian Gary Mormino, who describes Ybor City in its heyday as "one of the great immigrant communities in America . . . just an amazing place." The museum is usually open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
And only about a mile from Ybor, Tampa's restored Union Station is a portal to railroad history. The station celebrates its centennial this year, with festivities May 12 (see tampaunionstation.com).
If you go
•Cigar City magazine presents another "Mafia Tour" led by Scott Deitche on May 5 at 5:30 p.m. in Ybor City. Tickets are $20 and must be purchased at least a day before the tour, through cigarcitymagazine.com.
Although this is the last regular tour of the season, the magazine does organize special group tours (up to 30 guests); write email@example.com for details.
•Each Saturday, rain or shine, Ybor City's Centennial Park is home to an outdoor market. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through April, and then 9 a.m. 1 p.m. from May to October. Pets are welcome, and parking is free at the adjacent city lot. Details: ybormarket.com.
•The most well-known landmark in Ybor City, of course, is the original Columbia Restaurant, Florida's oldest restaurant (founded in 1905). See columbiarestaurant.com.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.