The walls are crowded with Puerto Rican flags and portraits of the bar’s owner and matriarchal figure, Maria Antonia Cay, who is more commonly known as Toñita. She opened the place in the 1970s as the Caribbean Social Club, a members-only hangout for the neighborhood baseball team. In 2000, she obtained a liquor license and opened the spot to everyone for cheap drinks and pots of Puerto Rican dishes that she makes in her apartment kitchen upstairs. (She bought the building decades ago.)“It reminds me of home,” said Djali Brown-Cepeda, an archivist and filmmaker who runs the Nuevayorkinos Instagram account.As neighborhoods like Williamsburg gentrify and businesses owned and frequented by people of color close, many of the people who grew up there fear they’ll lose the community outposts where they can speak Spanish, dance and play games. Ms. Cay said she has been offered millions of dollars for the building but will not sell.
A few dozen regulars held a rally outside the Municipal Building in Manhattan last month after a visit by a city inspector fed those worries. Ms. Cay said the inspector asked for minor repairs that she has since completed. The city has also received at least 10 noise complaints about the club in the past year. The bar has an A rating from the city health department, which last inspected it in April.
“I wasn’t worried” about being shut down, Ms. Cay, 83, said in Spanish. “I’m staying here with my people as long as I can. This isn’t for me to make money or a fortune. It’s to maintain a space for all of us to be together.”
Photographed for The New York Times, with words by Christina MoralesHer Social Club Isn’t Going Anywhere. Toñita Has No Plans to Quit.
Maria Antonia Cay, who runs one of the last Puerto Rican social clubs in the city, says she’ll hang on as long as she can.