Atlantic Cities

Battle Cry for the Bodega

Battle Cry for the Bodega
David Trawin/Flickr

You can tell that 7-Eleven has arrived in New York for real. Not just because of the burgeoning crop of the convenience store’s franchises on the streets of Manhattan (32, with plans for another 100 in the works). No, the truest indicator of 7-Eleven’s New York ascendance is the ersatz version that opened last fall on Canal Street. Complete with the chain’s signature colors and awning style, the Highline Deli (named, incidentally, for an attraction that’s a good two miles away) joins the grand tradition of Chinatown knockoffs, the shady RayBans and Prada bags and Rolexes that street hawkers tout up and down the boulevard. If they’re faking you on Canal Street, you know you’ve made it in New York.

But 7-Eleven’s ascendance hardly comes without angst. The outcry has been loudest in the East Village, a neighborhood that despite gentrification still prides itself on its countercultural attitude and grimy authenticity. Residents have expressed their outrage about the proliferating chain in sidewalk chalk graffiti, bumper stickers, and plans to lobby the city council for regulations to make it harder to open chain stores.

The fear is that the corporate behemoth will destroy the neighborhood bodega, a New York institution of long standing. The quintessential bodega is a beloved part of the fabric of the city, with its yellow-and-red awning, its legendary cats (there is of course a Bodega Cats Tumblr), its café con leche and refrigerator cases full of 40-ounce malt liquor. Artists have riffed endlessly on the bodega’s gaudy aesthetic. A bodega-inspired installation by Barry McGee, Todd James and Stephen Powers called “Street Market” even made it to the Venice Biennale in 2001.

The independently owned corner store is not yet in any danger of disappearing from the New York landscape. Just take a look at the Bodega List, an A-Z index of such joints compiled by Jeff Sisson, who started the project when he was "marginally employed" a few years ago and living off the rice and beans served up at his local bodega.

Sisson created his directory of bodegas using data from the New York State Liquor Authority website; any bodega worth its salt has a license to sell beer.

Sisson, who has since found steadier work coding for the Atavist, the long-form journalism publication, says that he himself prefers to live in a world with bodegas and is “no lover of 7-Eleven.” But he points out that bodegas themselves mostly sell prepackaged items bought in bulk from a central wholesaler, their own versions of Slurpees and Big Bites.

There’s also considerable debate over what, exactly, qualifies as a bodega. “One of the main aspects of the project is the semantics,” he says. “People get pissed off when their bodega isn’t considered a bodega.”

While the term originally referred to a neighborhood grocery in a mostly Spanish-speaking part of town, it has come to be used (in my experience) to cover just about any independently owned small grocer in the city. That includes the Korean-owned markets that were once the focus of protests and boycotts by African-American groups, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The markets’ owners, protesters claimed, were displaying racist attitudes and undermining the integrity of the city’s neighborhoods. Today, those disputes seem very far away. The Korean markets have been fully integrated into their communities. But they themselves are now going into decline, down from 2,500 citywide in the mid-’90s to about 2,000 in 2005, a trend that is only continuing.

Indeed, these things are complicated. The 7-Eleven story too is not a simple tale of corporations versus little guys. As Willy Staley wrote in New York magazine last year, 7-Elevens aren’t only coming in and building storefronts from scratch. They are also trying to get existing bodega owners to switch over to being franchisees. And the corporations have the cash to make that pretty enticing. According to Staley’s piece, they’re giving bodega owners a steep discount on franchise fees -- $25,000 instead of between $200,000 and $400,000. Not only that, their hyper-efficient purchasing and inventory systems can give the stores a significant advantage over the mom-and-pop joints. For certain business owners, it could be the right move.

The rise of 7-Eleven is just one example of the increasing dominance of chain stores in the city at large. Sisson says that he thinks New York will have its own influence on the chains, noting that an Applebee’s in, say, Bed-Stuy is a very different beast than one in your typical American suburb.

That may be so. But there’s no denying that the texture of the city would be flattened if the idiosyncratic bodega became an endangered species. Not so much because of what the stores sell as because of the larger role they play in the community.

Yes, some bodegas can be less than sanitary (those cats are there for a reason). A lot of the food on the shelves is unhealthy. They can, at times, act as hubs for illegal activity. But they can also be a real force for good in the places they serve, which are often home to people on fixed or low incomes. Lots of bodegas extend credit to their customers, or serve homemade food from family recipes. One bodega near my house holds on to cell phones for the kids who attend a nearby school and aren’t allowed to bring the devices in with them.

And bodegas are places to hang out. A friend of mine, single mom to a 10-year-old son, lives across the street from a bodega where a group of regulars spends the whole day either out front (if the weather is good) or by the cash register. Sometimes they drink a bit much, it’s true. But they are a living example of the "eyes on the street" that Jane Jacobs loved to talk about. My friend’s son feels safe walking home from school because he knows those folks are watching out for him, always calling out to him by name as he passes by.

If that bodega became a 7-Eleven, it’s hard to imagine that the inspectors from corporate headquarters would want those guys in the picture. That would be their loss. And everyone else’s.

Top image: David Trawin/Flickr

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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