Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, the area around West 14th (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) was once “Little Spain.” The Spanish Benevolent Society was once the heart of this thriving community, and is today one of the last remaining relics of this period. The club, founded in 1868, was created as a place to bring together Spanish and Hispanic-American citizens of New York. Early on, the club provided Spanish immigrants with essential support and services. It later became more of a cultural hub for Spanish avant-garde artists and writers, and a meeting place for political revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. It has played host to such greats as the artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, the director Luis Buñuel, and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The society, housed in a beautiful brownstone so discreet that most pedestrians simply walk right by, now serves as a repository for the rich cultural history of “Little Spain.” The archives contain hundreds of photographs and documents relating to the history of the area, as well as a documentary made in 2010 by Spanish filmmaker Artur Balder telling the story of the society (he spent a year living there, researching and working as a resident artist). For those interested in Spanish art, literature, or culture, or the immigrant history of Manhattan, in general, the Spanish Benevolent Society is a lesser-known gem to be discovered.
“We’re a space for organizing and connection, ” is how Communications Director Helen Buse described the LGBT Community Center. Though the seeds of The Center were planted following the 1969 Stonewall riots, it took nearly fifteen years for it to be founded at the site of a former trade high school on 13th Street. Since then, it has been the birthplace of a bevy of key advocacy organizations that went on to gain national prominence, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Queer Nation, and the ACT UP coalition to fight AIDS. It is now home to hundreds of groups that run the gamut from drawing classes to political associations to twelve-step programs. The Center’s own resources are equally as wide-ranging, including substance abuse recovery and wellness services, mental health support, economic advancement initiatives, career guidance, and an abundance of arts activities such as film screenings and in-house exhibitions. The Center has long been a locus for artists, activists, and academics to discuss and create work that celebrates the queer community and addresses the relevant issues it faces. Its first cultural event, known as Second Tuesday, has been running uninterrupted since 1985. It serves as an opportunity for those in academia, politics, and a myriad of other fields to read their work and converse with the LGBTQ+ community. Speakers from Black writer Audre Lorde to AIDS historian Sarah Schulman have lectured under this series, which is a Center favorite. Helen is proud to say that these direct resources are continually growing to respond to the needs of all who flock to the organization. “It makes me excited for what the future holds because the Center has a track record of expansion and evolution that is part of what makes it so special. ”The Center’s significance is not merely limited to what it provides, but also the building where it is housed. In the 1980s, a host of artists were invited to paint murals across the walls, many of which are still visible today. A piece by Keith Haring located in the second-floor bathroom is especially popular, and Helen always urges visitors to take a look. “They are a great part of history. ”
Also known as the Tessler Center for the Arts, or the Chabad Center for Jewish Discovery, NY Hebrew offers an after school program for children ranging in age from pre-school to eighth grade with a curriculum that will broaden their Jewish education. There are mommy and me classes, Torah classes for adults, and senior programs. In addition, the Cotler Mineroff Synagogue is located inside these doors.
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.