- Special Projects
Just a few blocks southeast of Bedford Avenue’s vintage record stores and vegan restaurants, a visitor to Williamsburg might catch a few stray notes of salsa music spilling out onto Grand Street. There, a little entrance marked only by Christmas lights leads back to a different era.
Opened in 1973, Toñita’s is one of the very last Puerto Rican bars remaining in Los Sures, a historically Hispanic section of Williamsburg’s South Side. Baseball trophies, Christmas tinsel, a deer head and a disco ball decorate the space. But the real atmosphere is created by the regulars, who range in age from six years old to well into their seventies. They’re bound together by food, music—and most importantly—a palpable sense of community, in a neighborhood that’s lost more than 10,000 Latino residents to gentrification over the last decade.
When he came home from the war in Iraq 10 years ago, Jason Sagebiel, a scout-sniper and sergeant in the U.S. Marines, knew something wasn’t right. He was losing weight rapidly, getting lightheaded after going up only a few steps, and without knowing it, was slurring his speech.
It took many tests — and even a diagnosis of parasites that he treated with medication to help him gain his weight back – to find that he had bleeding in his brain stem.
“Looking back, we finally made the connection,” Sagebiel said. “What we know about brain injuries now is they usually don’t happen from one occurrence, they usually happen from multiple occurrences.”
Known as a bastion of acceptance and a symbol of the gay rights movement, the neighborhood has long been a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people live and socialize. Even amid an increase in gay-related hate crimes in recent months, many were shocked by the fatal shooting of Mark Carson, 32, just steps from the Stonewall Inn, a landmark for the LGBT community.
Nearly 2,000 people took to the streets May 20th to protest the violence, marching from the LGBT Center on West 13th Street to the site of the killing blocks away. Amid chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia’s got to go,” some marchers spoke of the victim and reflected on how his death changes they way they see the city.