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La Borinquena Closes After 40 Years in South Williamsburg

By Meredith Hoffman | February 28, 2013 7:40am | Updated on February 28, 2013 10:32am

WILLIAMSBURG — As the "La Borinqueña's" white name plaque toppled onto the sidewalk of Marcy Avenue, Ruben Moya watched 40 years of family celebrations, pastrami paninis, movie nights and loyal Latino clients come crashing to an end.

"I shouldn't have taken that sign off so soon. It's a shock," Moya, 47, said in front of his closed family grocery. "I made my last bacon-egg sandwich Friday, and it was the last thing I sold."

La Borinqueña, which Moya's father opened in 1972 a few blocks from their apartment, warmed its owners and customers with far more than its fresh hot meals.

Puerto Ricans frequented the cozy space to relax and unload their troubles in Spanish, to cheer for their favorite football teams on TV, to enjoy occasional dance parties and to find an instant home, Moya said.

"I raised my kids here," Moya's father, Aurio, 73, said in Spanish in front of the shop. "I feel lucky my kids have all grown up so well. This is the end of a chapter."

The end of La Borinqueña — which also held weekly Moya family reunions after church on Sundays and summer outdoor parties with the fire hydrant "pump" open for kids to splash across the street — coincides with the dwindling of South Williamsburg's Puerto Rican community.

The Latino population in Williamsburg decreased by nearly 25 percent from 2000 to 2010, from 57 percent to 37 percent, according to data compiled by the Center for Urban Research at CUNY Graduate Center

Rolando Guzman, a housing advocate with the local non-profit St. Nick's Alliance, said the major demographic shift was further accelerated in 2005 when Williamsburg was rezoned to allow residential and commercial developers to enter the neighborhood.

"Puerto Rican families came here in the '80s, and they were one of the largest communities," Guzman said. "But with all the gentrification these families are the ones to be displaced."

Still, Moya hanged on, knowing the few loyal customers left relied on his store.

"Even though things were sinking we were addicted to the place," said Moya of the final years, when business slowed as longtime Puerto Rican residents moved out. "Even though people were leaving the neighborhood, they knew they could come back to us and find out where everyone was."

But the changes in the neighborhood were taking hold, Moya said.

"Across the street, seven businesses all closed last year," he added. "We're getting pushed out."

Despite La Borinqueña's financial struggles, Moya said he tried to hold on to the space with hopes of opening a restaurant there with his friend — but a new owner recently bought the building and has refused to renew the family's lease, Moya said.

"It was disappointing. We tried to persuade him," Moya said of the new owner, Dr. Mohammad Billah, who also owns the building next door.

Billah declined to comment on the property.

La Borinqueña may have shuttered, but the neighborhood icon went out with a bang. This week residents stopped by the closed shop to share their gratitude with the Moyas, and they honored Aurio Moya with a 40-year award at a recent goodbye party for the store.  

"They're the best. They were a fixture," said Raymond Ortiz, a South Williamsburg resident who frequented the shop since it opened 40 years ago. 

And for Ruben Moya, who will continue to live in the neighborhood but has to find work elsewhere, the shop led him to the best treasure of his present and future — his wife and children.

"My wife worked at the shoe store next door," he said of Ileana Santos, now a teacher at P.S. 84 who visited his store 20 years ago. "I told a lady to take her a note. Now, we have two kids."