The rise and fall of chelsea’s little spain History of Chelsea

| 08 Dec 2015 | 11:23

Most New Yorkers are familiar with the city’s major ethnic enclaves, past and present: Chinatown, the Jewish Lower East Side, Little Italy. One lesser-known enclave that hardly exists anymore was “Little Spain,” centered on 14th Street between 7th and 8th avenues, home to Spanish organizations, restaurants, cultural institutions and more.

Little Spain began to take shape around 1900, spurred mainly by the thousands of Spanish seamen who docked at the then-thriving Port of New York. They were soon joined by immigrants from Spain. Many of them dreamed of going home someday, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s put a damper on those hopes.

A New York Times article from 1924, quoted in writer James D. Fernandez’s blog, described a colony in Chelsea of about 30,000 people, about half of whom were from Spain and the other half from various Latin-American countries. At the time, according to the article, the area stretched from 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues south to Abingdon Square.

In general, the colony revolved around two institutions that survive, in some form, to this day: The Spanish Benevolent Society and the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The church’s original building, which still stands, was constructed at 229 W. 14th St. in 1902. According to “EspanaNYU” site, the builders took two brownstones and combined them into a Catholic church, with a Spanish-style façade added in 1921. The parish was the first in New York to offer Mass in Spanish.

The second was the Spanish Benevolent Society, now known as La Nacional, at 239 W. 14th St. It dates back to 1868, and its primary purpose was to help immigrants from Spain transition to life in the U.S. It also served as a cultural center, and over the years it has hosted many important Spanish artists, such as filmmaker Luis Bunuel and poet-playwright Federico Garcia Loca.

EspanaNYU goes into detail about some of the other institutions of Little Spain. One was Casa Moneo, at 210 W. 14th St., which sold packaged food from Spain as well as clothing, cookware and other items. During the Spanish Civil War, according to NYU, anti-fascist Spanish people often picketed the store because the owner supported Franco.

La Iberia, also on West 14th Street, sold clothing, mainly of the American brand-name variety, to Spanish seamen whose ships docked on the nearby Hudson, as well as to workers in nearby companies like Nabisco.

And of course, there were also restaurants, including La Bilbaina, Bar Coruna, Little Spain Bar, Café Madrid, Meson Flamenco, El Faro (which moved to Greenwich Street) and others. These restaurants, more than anything else, attracted non-Spanish people to the area.

Little Spain began to significantly decline in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1990s, the number of Spanish-speaking parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe began to swell—but most of the new parishioners were from Mexico, not from Spain.

In 2003, the parish merged with St. Bernard’s Church, a block west at 328 W. 14th St., to form “Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard” and now conducts Spanish-language services at that larger building. The former Our Lady of Guadalupe building still stands, and several objects from the old church have been brought over to St. Bernard.

Another sign of Little Spain’s decline took place in 2007, when Liberia Lectorum, described by the Daily News as “the city’s oldest and largest Spanish-language bookstore,” closed down. “Unfortunately, this part of the city is no longer a hub of Latino life. We can reach them more effectively through our website,” Theresa Mlawer, who managed the store for publishing giant Scholastic, was quoted as saying.

The main survivor of the old Little Spain is the Spanish Benevolent Society, now known as La Nacional. The organization’s website describes it as offering “live events, classes, authentic cuisine, art, music and more” for “Spaniards, lovers of Spanish culture, New Yorkers.”

Among the events it sponsors are traditional flamenco performances and tango dances. And on the ground floor is a restaurant that is open to members and non-members alike, offering tapas, paellas, salads and other Spanish food.