The same week that Fidel Castro died, Cubana Social—Williamsburg’s only Cuban restaurant—announced it will close its doors. Although the two events are unrelated, interest in Cuba, especially tourism, is on the rise. But you know what else is on the rise? The cost of running a business in Williamsburg.
While businesses open and close in Brooklyn at a dizzying rate, not every closing is like the other. Rather than a mere building in which to purchase an item or a meal, some businesses are special; they foster community.
Cubana Social has been a space for celebrating Cuban food and music since they opened their doors in 2010. It was an unstable time for many businesses following the financial crisis. In this part of Williamsburg, many high rise condos were left half finished for months—like erector sets abandoned by distracted children.
But Christina Bouza, owner of Cubana Social, was working next door at Public Assembly as an operations manager and programs director. She saw an opportunity to bring her Cuban roots and love of community to the neighborhood in the form of a restaurant and performance space. A South Florida native, she says she learned a lot about fostering a welcoming environment from her grandmother who passed away earlier this year.
“My abuela was the family matriarch and embodied hospitality in a natural, Latina way. When you visited her, food was always provided and people ate and communed together,” Bouza says as we share cookies and tea before the Saturday night crowd pours through the doors.
She wanted to bring that same atmosphere to Cubana, which operates in a warehouse-sized space on N6th Street next to the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The mottled granite and jade colored floors, checkerboard stage, and gold art deco lettering invite customers into a space that seems timeless. Salsa, jazz, and traditional Afro-Cuban music fills the room, mixing with enticing aromas wafting from the kitchen. It’s a vibrant space filled with the energy of its owner, the employees, and the clientele.
“We’ve been operating our business like a home,” Bouza says. Many of the staff have been with her for six years. One young cook has been working at Cubana since he was 18. He’s 24 now and Bouza and her partner Maggie Ginestra want to help guide him into his next stage of life after they close their business.
When I ask Bouza, Ginestra, and musician Danny Odria what’s next for them they all agree: spending time in Cuba. But before they do that, they will say goodbye to their loyal customers and friends who have become their Brooklyn family. They are hosting their last series of events this month, all of which will raise money for different local charities such as La Familia Verde Bronx Community Garden Coalition, El Taller Latino Americano Community Arts & Education, and The Doula Project.
Odria has been a mainstay at Cubana for the past five years, performing with his band Salsondria. “To have found a space like this… I always wanted to play music and be in a band and sing and I dabbled for years but it was around the time I started coming here that I started being brave enough to do it. My first gig with a band was here,” he says.
Odria and Bouza agree that there aren’t many places in NYC that play traditional Cuban music. Puerto Rican salsa dominates many of the clubs because of their stronghold in the city and also because of the political strife between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I wouldn’t have been able to find my voice and fulfill that passion I’ve always had without Cubana. It’s been a space for me to grow individually. And also a place to try to pull together a community of people who don’t have a space to dance to this very unique music,” Odria says.
In her time at Cubana, Bouza has had an impact in the community in many ways. She co-founded Brooklyn Allied Bars & Restaurants (BABAR), a neighborhood organization that advocates for locally-owned businesses and for the community as a whole.
Many places on N6th St. have shuttered their doors as rents have skyrocketed. Tops grocery store is no longer open and Cameo, Anytime, Go Yoga, Public Assembly, Black Bear, the Cove, This ’n’ That—all of them, gone.
“While we’ve been trying to root here, we’ve seen a lot of folks leave. And feel like we’re one face on the block amid all this change with national and international brands coming in. That’s how gentrification is. There are layers and layers, and waves, of change. The displacement of people keeps going out further and further out from where they once called home,” Bouza says.
While the neighborhood may be changing, Bouza says her values remain the same: providing Latinos with fresh, locally sourced food, creating a space for Cuban musical traditions, treating workers fairly, and offering affordable prices to customers. To be able to meet rising costs and rent and keep all these values intact would be nearly impossible.
“We don’t have just one value, we have a bounty of complexity of values. You either don’t have those values or you make sacrifices to make profit,” Bouza says. “Continuing what this place has meant, is who I am—celebrating music and togetherness and food. That’s who I am and I want to continue to do that. But I want to do it outside of capitalism, where my resources and energy can really go, toward nurturing that.”
Image courtesy of @Sibilla_jewels