Even though he was born and raised in New York City, Maximino “Max” Vazquez is authentically Spanish. His sister was a Flamenco dancer, and he calls his mother’s paella the best in the world. Vazquez has spent all of his 64 years in and around a stretch of West 14th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, that was long known as New York City’s Little Spain.
In fact, a walk around the block with Vazquez almost brings that neighborhood back to life.
The sushi spot across the street from his apartment was once a Spanish coffee shop where he enjoyed rich, thick Spanish cappuccinos. The tall apartment building next door was once an empty lot that the Spanish community transformed every year for a lively festival – rife with outdoor Flamenco shows and chefs grilling paellas and sardines. And what’s now a nail salon was once Casa Moneo, a general food store that was owned by the father of one of Vazquez’s closest friends.
“At Casa Moneo, you could buy a lot of products from Spain such as chorizo or bacalao,” he said. “They also had records from Spain and they had some souvenirs from Spain. So it was kind of like a general store. But the main business was, of course, in the food.”
Looking at that nail salon, Vazquez remembers the smells of chorizo and the sounds of his childhood.
“I can see everything,” said Vazquez. “I can see what it was.”
Virtually the entire Little Spain community that Vazquez remembers has disappeared, though, and to the untutored eye, this stretch of West 14th Street now looks like any other block in Chelsea.
Vazquez is almost the last remaining vestige; he lives in an apartment above what used to be his father’s clothing store, La Iberia, which is now a flower shop.
The demise of Little Spain is not a unique story in New York, where “little” neighborhoods come and go. Manhattan’s Little Italy, for example – long a bustling immigrant enclave – is now little more than a small strip of restaurants. On the other hand, the city bristles with new “littles,” where more recent immigrants congregate.
Many of these changes – including the decline of Little Spain – have their roots in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a quota system that for decades had favored immigrants from Spain and elsewhere in Europe. In 1960, Europeans made up 75 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population; by 2014 that figure had dropped to a mere 11 percent, while the numbers grew from Asia and other areas once shut out from the U.S.
As fewer Spaniards were able to immigrate to the U.S., Little Spain’s flow of newcomers dried up. At the same time, New York City rents were increasing, and many immigrants also sought to leave the city’s troubled public school system. Queens, Long Island and the suburbs of New Jersey were among the desired destinations for families from Little Spain.
What’s left of the immigrant neighborhood is largely in the memory of Max Vazquez.
And the memories are rich. Vazquez recalls how, in his youth, two ships from Spain would dock on 11th Street by the Hudson River every month.
“When they docked, you’d have close to 5,200 sailors coming out and they were all kind of doing what we call contrabando,” Vazquez said. “They were all selling liquor from Spain to all those restaurants and converting that into cash.”
The sailors used their cash to buy American brands from his father’s store.
“Every time they came in, it was like Christmas,” he said. “We knew all the sailors. The store would be packed and open until 10 o’clock at night.”
On the days when the ships docked, Vazquez would skip school, hiding if he saw his teacher so he could help his father in the store.
Sailors soon learned that Vazquez’s father was good for more than just retail sales; he was known as the banker of Little Spain.
“It wasn’t so hard at that time for the sailors to walk off the boat and stay in New York,” said Vazquez. “So my father gave out loans for them to start businesses here.”
For those ready to make a more modest start, “My father actually had a policy of giving a white shirt and a black pair of pants to the sailors so they could be waiters to make some money,” he said. “And they would just pay him later.”
The ships are long gone, and the only part of Little Spain that remains, other than Vazquez, is the Spanish Benevolent Society, a non-profit organization that operates as a cultural meeting spot. The restaurant in its basement, La Nacional, is one of New York City’s oldest eateries.
Vazquez says that Spaniards have always congregated on the steps outside of La Nacional, forming what he calls the “LinkedIn of Little Spain.”
“If you were out of work and sitting on the stairs, people would come by and say they needed this or that,” said Vazquez. “People would say, ‘oh we need a plumber.’ So you would kind of hang out on the stairs looking to find work.”
The golden era of Little Spain was the 1950s, when the community could have been mistaken for a Madrid street, according to Vazquez.
As he flipped through old magazines published by the Spanish Benevolent Society, Vazquez described Little Spain as an oasis.
“I would see other kids that were Spaniards,” he said. “And they would reinforce the fact that we had this shared culture.”
As a child, he would spend most Sundays with his father at La Nacional, where the men drank cognac and coffee, smoked nonstop, played dominos – and networked, face-to-face, a little like an old style version of Facebook, says Vazquez.
By the late 1960s, the block’s Spanish businesses were closing up. La Nacional just barely survived. And by the end of the 1970s, Little Spain was gone.
“When Casa Moneo closed, that was the end,” said Vazquez. “That was like the nail in the coffin.”
Today, Vazquez serves as vice president of the Spanish Benevolent Society, and he helped save La Nacional years back when all of the other businesses were closing.
“By saving La Nacional, there’s a remembrance and an honoring of the people that were here,” said Vazquez. “The fact that La Nacional is still here is really important for me.”
“It gives me a sense of continuity,” he added.