“How long have you been coming here?”
“Probably since about 2004”
“Oh wow. That’s the year I was born!”
This was part of the conversation I had with a baby goth on her 18th birthday recently while waiting in line outside the local goth club. As we stood there chatting and I came to the chilling realization that I have been frequenting this establishment for the entirety of this young woman’s life, a feeling of local pride and inspiration came to me. The rest of the night I had a much deeper appreciation for the long history of my favorite place–and where I have always considered to be my spiritual home–the world renowned nightclub, The Castle.
Hidden away on the back streets of the Ybor City district of Tampa, Florida, looms the building whose crenelated façade, stained glass windows and square tower harken back to the Cuban and Spanish influences which marked the beginnings of the sprawling city which has been built around it. Throughout its lengthy history, The Castle has served as a nexus of both a political and social community. Over the past near-century, The Castle has been transformed into a vinculum of art, movement and personal expression. It is easy to see that this belovèd building has held meaning for many disparate groups over generations of time.
A Capitalist Town With Communist Roots
Prior to 1885, most of the area around Tampa Bay was sparsely populated by the Floridian pioneer families who had begun their southward expansion, starting from the end of the Civil War. It was at this time that the Spanish industrialist Vincente Martinez-Ybor founded the corporate town of Ybor City, which established a unique, multi-ethnic community populated almost completely by immigrants. Here arose the cigar rolling factories which would be producing 500 million hand rolled cigars each year by the early 20th century.
In 1930, the structure located at 2004 N 16th street was built by the Order of the Golden Eagle, and began its first life as the Ybor Labor Temple, while the building itself was formally called the Castle of Christopher Columbus (Castillo Cristobal Colon). At this time, labor guilds and unions were separated by race. In a multiracial town like Ybor, this resulted in the construction of many different guild halls, of which only a handful remain. The Ybor Labor Temple would then serve as the communist labor union for white Cuban immigrants. The very next year, the YLT would become the center of a clash between police and cigar workers whose right to assemble was being suppressed. Once the first arrest was made, the crowd of several hundred workers rioted against the authorities, resulting in an even harsher response from the governor on the “threat” of Communism.
Cigar City In Decline
Once a proud and booming center of industry owing to its many cigar rolling factories, the cigar business had already been in decline by the later 1950’s. Then, in 1962 everything came to a sudden halt when diplomatic tensions between the United States and Castro’s Cuba resulted in the trade embargo which has remained in place to this day. As the cigar factories closed, the communities who built the city of Ybor dispersed for other opportunities while few remained. By the 1990s, Ybor had fallen into neglect. The main strip of 7th Avenue was not yet considered a “destination” spot. Before then, the only bar nearby was the Spanish Park Tavern, Las Novedades (also later a nightclub called Czar), which held a record for most consecutive years with a murder. It was in this transitional period that the new foundations of The Castle were to be laid down.
Darkness On The Horizon
After the massive swelling of the Goth subculture in the 1980’s, its evolution into the future, though fragmentary, was still shepherded by the musical artists who embraced and expanded on those intersectional themes of the macabre, the romantic, and the melancholic into the 90’s. It was in this new decade that the post-punk movement would mature into forms of universal influence. As gothic subcultures began to further develop in the United States, the time was exactly right for the arrival of the next incarnation of the old Labor Temple.
In 1992 the aging building was sold. At the time of the city’s annual Latin-flavored Halloween celebration (Guavaween), “The Castle” opened its doors to the world. The ground floor saloon, which had always served as a bar since the very beginning, first opened as an intimate watering-hole with strong drinks and only a jukebox for entertainment. At the time of purchase, the large upstairs space, once rented out to Union members for parties, could be found covered in old wood paneling and the ceiling full of bullet holes. Over the years the nightclub has had many renovations, most famously its saloon bar which boasts a cobblestoned top and a moat with running water coursing around patrons’ drinks. “Every castle has to have a moat”, said John Landsman, one of the longest staff members.
After trying many themes for its events: attention was brought to a group of wayward goths who met on weekends across Tampa Bay in St Petersburg. These folks would get together on a weekly basis, dressed to the nines and needed somewhere better than the old Bennigan’s to hang out at. So began Goth Night at The Castle, every Friday. Since then not only has The Castle outlasted most of the other night spots in Ybor which were present when it first opened, but it has become world famous for its nightlife and the eccentric crowd it caters to. It has been recognized internationally as the premier dance club for alternative electronic music: EBM, dark electro, synth pop, goth, power noise and many others.
With such a title to bear, The Castle has inserted itself into the wider culture in several ways: as the inspiration for the 90’s SNL skit “Goth Talk”, the setting of a very ridiculous B-movie , and the home of the long-running internet radio show Communion After Dark (available on streaming platforms). It is the regular host of many major nightclub parties and events such as The Vampire Ball, The Taboo Masquerade and The Hallucination Before Christmas. It has been featured in countless travel shows at home and internationally.
If These Walls Could Talk
The true history of any place like this is less about the brick and mortar, but the people who have come through the doors over the years (and decades). Some of these eccentric faces have haunted The Castle so frequently that they become part of the characterization of the place itself. There’s “Peter Pan”, the pixie-dressed fellow who is never seen out of a leotard. “Phi-Phi”, the seven foot tall bob-haired harlequin doll (so sweet, a dear friend) who I have never EVER known to be absent from a dance night. “Lilith”, the devil-horned temptress who is often to be found being flogged against a St Andrew’s Cross (much to the delight, confusion and damnation of the menfolk). “Leonardo”, the handsome Satanic wizard, usually seen swaying to the heavy beats in a druggèd trance, casting who-knows-what spell over the crowd (Hey he sounds familiar!) Celebrities and important figures are also known to visit including Cedric the Entertainer and even Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan (I said this place attracts all types!). Yet no face was as well known as the One whose status rose to that of legend: The Senator.
The Senator (Michael Ricardi) reached Legend Status because of his unique appearance. After years of hearing about this man, I finally first spotted him by complete chance. As I turned around, there his fully erect penis was, staring me right in the face, followed by the rest of him. He was usually seen wearing lace negligees and other delicate boudoir elements, or sometimes he’d just be totally naked. Then, that first night, like a magic act, I turned around and he had disappeared without a trace. Sadly it seems The Senator has departed, though many younger lads have stepped forward and pulled their cocks out for the crowd, ready to claim the throne for themselves.
“It’s pretty much about life, even though it looks like it’s about death. You should be able to look the way you want to look and live your life the way you want to live it. As long as you’re harming nobody else, you should be able to be the person you’re meant to be.” – Angel Crane (from a news interview in the 90’s). While its outward beauty has blessed the city for nearly 100 years, the true blessing of this place today is what a haven it has become for people like me. When the sun goes down, the night brings to The Castle a world of endless possibilities. Here, everyone is free to be themselves (and whatever form of themselves that may express). Here, everyone can become a beautiful creature of the night, no matter who they are in the day.