Keep Your Hands Off The Bodegas

How a new tech venture has sparked another gentrification debate — but
it’s one that’s been brewing for a while.

“If you let a person talk long enough you’ll hear their true intentions. Listen twice, speak once.”
- Tupac Shakur (1971–1996)

These days, I have gotten used to waking up to a gang of notifications on my
social media feeds via my phone about one thing or another. This morning
though, one item caught my eye and nearly made me spit out my coffee. And
it dealt with two former Google employees whose budding venture aims to 
basically get rid of that neighborhood staple in cities around this country — the bodega.

My initial reaction? Get the entire fuck out of here with that nonsense.

You’ll understand why I was moved to curse once you read the article. Pay 
attention to one quote in particular by one of the co-founders Paul McDonald, when asked if he was concerned if the name of their company which is — get this- Bodega:

“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no’. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

Really, bro? I’m sincerely wondering who you asked because the uproar that
this has caused leads me to believe you aren’t talking to the right people. ’Cause there’s a lot of people who are PISSED.

I can’t sit there and say that this is overly surprising because it requires me to 
be a bit naive and I’ve been exceedingly in short supply of that for quite some
time. The bodega has been both a cultural and urban icon and also a fetish 
item of sorts for those who haven’t been in proximity to them or what they 
truly represent. In doing research for this essay, I found myself going back to
that moment I had gone to the MoMA in midtown. Afterwards, I strolled across the street to their gift store, and while browsing I found this little item
up for sale- a Bronx Bodega Quarter Water Candle. Observe:

Bronx Bodega Quarter Water Candle. Seriously. (photo credit: author)

I couldn’t bring myself to find out more about this. I walked out of the store
shortly after seeing it. Now you may be one of those people who will go, “what’s the big deal? This is just art.” But when you go “it’s just ____ “ and
leave it alone about something, you minimize whatever lies behind that 
thought or object and then make way to capitalize off of it in the wake of the created air of indifference. Which brings me back to McDonald and his start
up. The aim behind it, from all published reports and information given out
by the company, is to install stand-alone kiosks that are filled with goods a 
person may need on the go in apartment buildings, gyms and other places.
Each purchase is logged and analyzed to see what gets picked up more, and
that feeds analytics to better inform the company what to stock more of in
the respective kiosks. All of this is fully automated — purchases are made with
credit cards. The company has already obtained $2.5 million in financing 
and there’s currently 30 of these machines in the Bay Area. All so you don’t
have to deal with *drum roll*…people.

I get it. It’s all about instant gratification and the need to look “cool” while
doing it. It’s why Uber is now part of our routine vocabulary. It’s why Amazon
decapitated most brick-and-mortar bookstore chains and has gotten into
the grocery game as of late. We’re in an era where people want to be catered
to with as little interaction with others as possible, at least that’s what some of
you put out there in memes up and down your social media accounts weekly.
And for those who these initiatives are ultimately aimed at, those with the 
income to spend a little extra for these features (to be blunt-white people)
avoiding that hassle is a godsend.

Which brings me back to the uproar over McDonald’s (and the other co-founder Aswath Rajan) Bodega. I want you to look at and think about 
that quote above. There’s a certain amount of gall involved when you design
a company to make bodegas a thing of the past yet you name your company
after that same thing and even have a bodega cat as your logo
. It’s the kind
of gall that embodies a disdain for what bodegas and corner stores have been
and continue to be. As a New York City native, it’s something I grew up with 
and came to appreciate as time went on. They were an introduction to the 
vibrant culture and pride Puerto Ricans brought with them here from the 
World War II years and onward. As manufacturing jobs dwindled from the 
1960’s onward, Dominicans entered the bodega business in larger numbers
as they emigrated here and settled heavily in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan inspired by their colmados back home. The same
can be said for generations of Mexican-Americans as well those from Central 
American nations in Los Angeles and Chicago and many other American 
cities. These days, you see more of these bodegas run by folks hailing from
Yemen, Qatar, Pakistan and other Asian and Middle Eastern nations. Bodegas
have been the key to their American dream. And they remain that way, even
in the face of a rising xenophobia tied into recent political activity here. I’ve got countless stories that center around bodegas and the people I’ve known there. I remember Junior who used to own a bodega in my neighborhood, a stubby dude who had a larger than life personality and took no mess in his store. I still remember the one bodega up on Linden Boulevard that still had an arcade cabinet with Street Fighter II in the back and sold you shots of liquor(only if you were cool). These are more than spots you could run into to get a cup of coffee and your baconeggancheese (you gotta say it exactly in that manner) before you roll out to work on the bus or subway, or places you can walk to in the dead of night and grab a beer or some sunflower seeds or something else under the flickering fluorescent light bulbs. There’s more than a few stories you’ll hear out here about some of the people who run these stores who have been bedrocks for their community, giving back to the people. THAT lies at the heart of bodegas, not just for people of color. For everybody. I mean, there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to the cats who make these stores their home.

McDonald and Rajan seem to realize they might’ve stepped in it in a major
way, with an post on their company blog issuing an apology claiming that
it’s out of admiration that they took the moniker. See — admiration is at times
the fuel that lies behind appropriation. They’re former Google employees
living in a city like San Francisco that is locked in an intense struggle with
gentrification, the effects of which are both subtle and overt and have led
to incidents giving some deep concerns about what the Bay Area will 
ultimately be as some who can’t afford to live within the city limits are 
being pushed out. Things like this make an apology after the fact no matter
the sincerity behind it more of a barometer to see if things will blow over.
Because they’re aware that something like this means going back to the
drawing board and potentially losing more funding in the process. It’s also why I felt the need to lead this off with the quote from the late, great Tupac who lost his life on this day years ago.

Truth be told, what the Bodega company offers probably won’t fly because
of the one thing it excludes — the people factor. Plus, it has to make a dent
in an economy that already has 7-Eleven (with Amazon Lockers where 
customers can pick up orders) and drug stores chains that now have a mix
of self-service counters and people on the register. To take the Amazon point
further, their Dash buttons are still gaining followers after some stumbles.
And Japan already has a better angle on these.

So, I’m going to finish this up and hit my local bodega for a scratch card,
some juice, & maybe a turkey and cheese hero. ’Cause there’s some things you can’t capture with an app.

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