Bodegas are as fundamental to New York City as the subway. These friendly neighborhood mom-and-pop corner stores are a cross between a 24-hour deli and a convenient mini-mart. More often than not, they hold court in the smallest places imaginable and provide shelter to a stray cat or two (by the bread, to be exact). More importantly, however, bodegas are cultural pillars to the very people they’ve historically served: immigrants and people of color.
The bodega is the only place where you can purchase milk, laundry detergent, the newspaper and tampons without having to get on a train to the nearest supermarket, 10 stops over. Lest we forget the ever-so-clutch baconeggandcheese sandwich that’s kept everyone – from the high school kid to the real estate broker to the drunken 20-something – less-than-nourished, but well-fed no less. In other places around the country, these establishments might emerge as the very corporate 7/11s or local gas stations. But in the concrete jungle, and other inner-city neighborhoods throughout the East Coast, these grocery sanctuaries are called bodegas.
After Fast Company profiled a pair of ex-Google employees who want to make bodegas obsolete with a new startup, Black Twitter congregated over roasting Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. And understandably so. The duo’s new concept not only misappropriates the term Bodega, but it also aims to disrupt small local businesses by installing a vending machine of sorts in apartment buildings. These dispensaries are unmanned and carry everyday items, from candy to baby wipes, but vary according to the building or institution.
What these former Googlers didn’t take into account is our current political climate, or the fact that we, black and brown peoples, have long grappled living beneath a system designed by and for white people—and we’re yelling from the margins that enough is enough. With some 11,000-17,000 bodegas (as reported by NPR’s Latino USA) and other family-run convenience stores across the Big Apple, here are five reasons why bodegas are so essential and should thusly remain untouched.
1) Because Culture
In New York City, bodegas are largely owned by Dominicans (although there is a growing number of Yemen-owned establishments). Harlem/Washington Heights is home to the largest population of Dominicans outside of the Dominican Republic. When you enter your everyday bodega, anything from bachata to merengue típico is blasting from some unseen sound system. A group of island men are worrying the dominoes table. And la doña with the rolos from next door is peddling her habichuela con dulce or home-cooked pastelitos (or empanadas). With change always being the only constant, it’s safe to say bodegas are one of the few things left standing that are pure to New York.
2) Because Community
However small in size and cramped for space, bodegas somehow manage to provide shelter. And not just to the cat. One could never just hang around and build with community members at a Pathmark, for instance, or politick with an unrelated elder. In fact, were in not for that beaming corner store, you might never run into your next door neighbor, forced to rub elbows and engage in small talk or trivial affairs.
3) Because Trust
Bodegas are, as previously mentioned, cultural pillars to the very people it serves. They are an extension of home. Community spaces where our public lives unfold—and that requires a level of trust, no? With its lights on all hours of the day, one is liable to have to leave their keys with the owner. He or she might even have to sign for your package one day.
4) Because Safety
Believe it or not, bodegas often absorb a majority of the local news (read: gossip, he say she say, the 411), making them a fundamental component of the safety fabric of the neighborhood it serves, with its members always keeping an eye and ear to the streets.
5) Because Convenience (For Us, By Us)
Even with rising rent prices and harsh competition resulting from gentrification, the cadre of bodegas left standing in their respective neighborhoods manage to expertly serve their customers by keeping an inventory of what we consume on a day to day basis. In other words, our bodega owners tend to know who we are and what we like. Bodega owners know more than anyone that diversity is good for business and, as such, know that understanding their customer base equals success. And since time is always of the essence in the city that never sleeps, everything from fruits and vegetables to beer to kitchen supplies to panty hose is almost always on hand and as little as 60 steps away.