The Life and Imminent Death of a Latin Jazz Club in Queens
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOJAN. 27, 2017
Chia’s Dance Party on the loft stage at Terraza 7, a vibrant, multicultural jazz club in Queens that is being threatened with closure. Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
On a recent Saturday night at Terraza 7, a tiny club in Queens on the border between Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, the band Jarana Beat was bouncing through a set of Mexican folk songs. The stage was packed with seven musicians, two of them dancing nonstop as they strummed traditional instruments.
Freddy Castiblanco, the owner of the club, was in constant motion, too. He adjusted the dials on the soundboard, trotted downstairs to help out behind the bar and then ducked outside to take a phone call.
For nearly 15 years, Mr. Castiblanco has built this club into a centerpiece of his community in northwestern Queens. He has used it as a home base for his organizing efforts, hosting rallies, teach-ins and fund-raisers on behalf of fellow immigrants and small-business owners.
But the club may soon be forced to close, making way for condominiums in a neighborhood lurching toward change. Mr. Castiblanco finds himself caught in an awkward spot — an anti-gentrification activist forced out by economic development.
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“I know that I can open a new club in another part of the city,” Mr. Castiblanco, 45, said. “But I think I will lose a lot of what I’ve built if I move.”
The neighborhoods surrounding the club are quickly becoming attractive to developers, thanks to easy access to Midtown Manhattan and the planned multiyear shutdown of L train service to Brooklyn. The development corporation that bought the building, LDG Associates, is seeking city approval to convert the low-slung building into seven stories of stores and condominiums. When permission is granted, Mr. Castiblanco, whose lease now runs month to month, will be forced to close Terraza 7.
Charles Guo, a principal at LDG, says that the area is destined for development. “People are going to want to move to Queens,” he said. “Property value is going to go very high.”
Freddy Castiblanco, the owner of Terraza 7. Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
With Terraza 7, Mr. Castiblanco helped create a vibrant, multicultural scene, a bright spot in an area that has long wrestled with organized crime. His reward, familiar to pioneers all over the city, is to be priced out of the neighborhood he helped enrich.
In both the music it presents and the young following it attracts, Terraza 7 reflects the diversity of this part of Queens. In Jackson Heights alone, more than 160 languages are spoken. The club hosts concerts almost every night of the week — typically Latin jazz and what’s referred to on its website as “immigrant folk” — and it frequently opens its doors for film screenings, poetry readings and scholarly discussions. Musicians and patrons say it reminds them of bohemian clubs of Lima or Bogotá. And the political overtones carry over as well.
“Terraza is not only a space where I’ve felt like I could be safe and learn about my culture, it’s also a hub for politics and social justice,” said Tania Mattos, 33, who was born in Bolivia and is a leader of Queens Neighborhoods United.
Ivan Contreras, 27, makes the trip from Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Terraza 7 every few weeks. “I’m Mexican myself,” he said, “but I come to see a lot of the Colombian bands.”
Mr. Castiblanco moved to Jackson Heights in 2000 from his native Colombia, where he had been a doctor working mostly with the urban poor. He began training to practice medicine in New York, but he stumbled into a different calling.
“Jackson Heights was very diverse,” he said. “But each community was self-isolated: Colombians, Ecuadoreans, Mexicans.” His main goal with the club, he said, was to bridge those divides.
In 2002, he founded Terraza 7 in a little plot just off busy Roosevelt Avenue. He rented the raw space cheaply and set about installing bathrooms, a bar and the unorthodox stage that hangs over the bar. It soon became a magnet in the neighborhood.
“Even though it’s a small place, you’ll see students there from China, from Japan, from India, from Colombia, Venezuela,” said John Benitez, 49, a bassist who holds jam sessions on Sundays. “It’s a free environment for people to express their folklore.”
Dancing under the balcony stage Terraza 7, which typically features Latin jazz and what’s referred to on its website as “immigrant folk.” Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Mr. Castiblanco had done work as a community organizer in Colombia, and a few years after opening the club, he joined Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that works on behalf of low-income New Yorkers and immigrants. He became a leader on its Small Business United committee.
Through Make the Road, he traveled to Washington in 2009 to testify before Congress during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, he hosted rallies supporting a New York City law mandating paid sick days for workers.
The next year, a group of business owners and politicians announced a plan to expand the 82nd Street Partnership, a pro-development association commonly referred to as Jackson Heights’ business improvement district, along a 32-block stretch of Roosevelt Avenue. The corridor is undeniably in need of improvement. For years, Roosevelt Avenue has struggled in particular with prostitution, often tied to human trafficking.
But Mr. Castiblanco and many other business owners worried that the improvement plan would raise rents and threaten hundreds of small businesses.
“We are in the middle of the mafia and the chain stores,” Mr. Castiblanco said. “We need entrepreneurs, but we need entrepreneurs that are responsible with labor rights, and put people in jobs locally.”
In 2013, Mr. Castiblanco helped organize the Roosevelt Avenue Community Alliance to fight the BID expansion, and proposed a raft of alternate measures.
Leslie Ramos, the director of the 82nd Street Partnership, said that expanding the BID would not necessarily push out smaller shops. “Most of the locations along Roosevelt Avenue are small and narrow,” she said. “They’re not suitable for chain stores. They don’t meet the requirements that large stores are looking at.”
Tarry Hum, a professor of urban studies at Queens College, sees things differently. “The forces that have forced Freddy to close — hyper-speculative real estate and increasing commercial rents — are what the BID was only going to augment,” she said. This argument caught on in the community, and after years of acrimony, the BID now says it has no immediate plans to continue pushing for the expansion.
The club occupies a little plot just off busy Roosevelt Avenue. Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
But if he won that skirmish, Mr. Castiblanco still feels as if he is facing long odds. With a major redevelopment project underway at Willets Point just a few stops away on the 7 train, he says big businesses are likely to start encroaching on his stretch of Jackson Heights.
And yet he has high hopes for Terraza 7. When he moves out, he would like to find a similar (and larger) space nearby. The new iteration would serve food — a menu of Pan-American tapas — and perhaps even house an arts-education nonprofit to teach indigenous music to children.
Mr. Castiblanco has already booked bands well into the spring. But he has not yet settled on an affordable new space.
The crowds at Terraza 7 have swelled in recent weeks as news has spread of the imminent closure. On a Saturday night this month, a full house had gathered to hear the band Rebolú offer its modern take on traditional Afro-Colombian music.
Michele Rodriguez, 24, sat near the piano, moving to the music with a wide grin. Born in Jackson Heights to Colombian parents, she said that she has come to the club nearly every week since she was old enough.
“Coming here feels like going to the actual South American and Latino countries, because you get the warmth, you get the hospitality, you get everything,” she said.
For the moment, at least, the scene at Terraza 7 keeps going. The latest proposal from the new developers was recently rejected by the Buildings Department. But while Ms. Rodriguez has faith that the club will survive even in a new location, it will never be the same.
“There’s things that will always stay kept within the original space: the energy, the warmth,” she said. “That’s what makes this place special.”