Some Notes on my Pictures of Brooklyn Delis
It’s tricky, almost ten years later, to put things in order, but I think it went like this: early in 2008, around the time I began to give up, after two painful years of collecting rejection letters from literary agencies, on publishing the novel I’d written, my mother got a digital camera and gave me her old automatic one. It was nothing special — insert film, point, shoot.
It’s possible that not long before I’d noticed some Bernd and Hilla Becher pictures at Moma. Postwar art has seldom meant much to me, but that sort of thing—photos of industrial stuff, gas stations, split-level houses, or whatever—is an exception. I quit writing query letters in my spare time, quit trying to come up with new ways to make my novel sound interesting to literary agents, quit spending money on stamps and envelopes, and started wandering around Brooklyn on my days off. I took pictures of delis. I liked their signs, the endless variations on the message of beer, soda, coffee, candy, sandwiches, cigarettes, lotto, ATM. Of course I was fond of the vintage ones, the classic look of red or blue stenciled letters on a yellow background, and the signs that seemed to have been done by hand, but some of the newer ones were interesting, too, especially when they had digital collages that arrayed Coke cans or Kit Kat bars on a monochrome background.
A few photo books of New York City storefronts had come out recently, and I was convinced there was something wrong with them. They were too nostalgic. They wallowed in charm, in a when New York was great sentimentality. I thought I could do better. I considered trying to work systematically, putting a big map of brooklyn up on my wall, planning walks carefully, using the same angle every time, but in the end I decided that wasn’t for me. I lived in Crown Heights for the first half of 2008, so I took a lot of pictures there, especially on Franklin and Nostrand Avenues. Others are from Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, South Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Kensington, Downtown Brooklyn and Boerum Hill (where I lived from the second half of 2008 until I moved to the East Village in 2009).
After a while I developed my film. The pictures looked great, especially on the CDs I got with my prints, especially when you zoomed in. Full of color, but grainy, too. They weren’t just pictures of delis, they were pictures of moments of city life, of light and heat, shade and cool. And pictures of the commercial, street-level aspect of Brooklyn’s distinctive architecture.
I picked the twenty or so I liked best, printed them out on the color printer at work, and sent them to Hatje Cantz in Germany, asking if they’d like to make a book. I wrote to a few other publishers, too, but Hatje Cantz stands out in my mind because unlike the others they took the trouble to decline politely and even returned my pictures.
And I gave up, just like that. I was too shy to talk to anyone, go into a gallery, couldn’t imagine saying the words, I’m a photographer aloud. Not that I was afraid of rejection, or I was, but that’s normal, everyone deals with that, it was something else. I wasn’t a photographer. Not that I mean I thought I was a fraud, a lot of people get through that, too. I just wasn’t a photographer.
This summer I remembered the pictures and decided to retrace my steps. I opened an Excel file, got addresses for as many of the delis as I could, which, thanks to the Google Street View archive, was nearly all of them, and plotted a map.
The camera my mother gave me was long gone. In the interval I’d had a couple of digital ones, but the last of these stopped working a while ago and I never bothered to replace it. I spent a few hours online reading about Minoltas and Yashicas and looking at eBay and Craigslist, but decided that if I wanted to continue in the unfussy spirit of the original project I’d be better off using what was at hand — that is, my phone. Anyway film was already borderline twee in 2008, did I really see myself using it in 2017? Or maybe I was just being cheap.
When I took the original set I didn’t worry too much about what I was doing, whether or not I had a right to take the pictures. I knew it could be argued that I didn’t, or at least that I didn’t have a right to take pictures with people in them, not without asking their permission — that was a case I probably could have made forcefully and convincingly. But I also doubted anyone would mind, and I didn’t want my pictures not to have people in them, I guess because delis are a part of the life of the city, and I wanted that to be evident, I wasn’t trying to make them into aesthetic objects like the Bechers did with their blast furnaces and water towers. I worked as quickly and as unobtrusively as I could. But it’s clear from the pictures that a few people noticed, and I’m sure some were annoyed, even if no one confronted me.
Most of the neighborhoods the pictures are from were gentrifying then, but slowly. It takes a while for new residents to cause the commercial aspect of a neighborhood to change. Half the storefronts on Franklin Avenue were vacant when I lived there, or at least a lot of them were. Today everything’s different. There are far fewer empty storefronts on Franklin, and lots of new places catering to the new residents of Crown Heights. And there’s tension. I’d read about a bar on Nostrand Avenue, Summerhill, that had, in a press release, associated itself with the history of the neighborhood in a way that some people felt was disrespectful. (“Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there and, yes, we’re keeping it.”) I knew Summerhill had replaced a deli, and I wondered if it was one I had a picture of. It was, so Summerhill is part of the new set (no. 51).
Tension notwithstanding, I doubted a white guy going around Brooklyn taking pictures of delis with his phone would be met with hostility in 2017. But I chose to err on the side of caution: I decided to go into the delis first to show the old picture and explain what I was doing, that I’d taken this nine years ago and wanted to take another one to make a record of the changes. I uploaded the 112 old pictures to my phone and set off for Millie’s in Long Island City, the northernmost point on my map and the only deli not in Brooklyn.
I was right about the hostility. I didn’t meet any. Still, my decision to stop inside before taking the new pictures turned out to be the right one, for a different reason. Nearly everywhere I went the guys working in the delis—and in many cases customers who happened to be there, too—were thrilled to see the old pictures. I’d go up to the counter with my phone and say, “Hey, I thought you might like to see this, it’s an old picture.” I was invariably met with an expression of irritated suspicion, a look that said: who are you, what are you doing here, why are you handing me your phone. Most of the time this lasted only a moment, and gave way to surprise and delight. About half of them took me up on my offer to send the old picture.
And we talked. The proprietor of the Jay Street Finest Deli (no. 35) sighed for the beauty of his old sign (which omitted the “Finest”), while one of the guys behind the counter at Healthy Bites Gourmet in Clinton Hill (no. 93) couldn’t believe how ugly the storefront used to be (when it was the Lafayette Deli & Grocery). In a few delis that had come down in the world the response was a wistful, “that was when we had lotto.”
A customer in the Papa Firo Deli Mini Market on Third Avenue (no. 39) told me that the deli’s earlier incarnation, J. J. & Franklyn Grocery Inc., had been run by a short guy named Felix. The new proprietor at Clasica Grocery Corp. on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick (no. 14) pointed out the barred gate at the entrance in the old picture. He told me he’d had it removed because the neighborhood was no longer dangerous. I asked when it changed. “About five years ago,” he said. The guys at 407 Keap Organic Deli Corp. in Williamsburg (no. 29) showed me two posters of the Divino Niño behind the counter, holdovers from the time when the place, under a different owner, had been the Divino Niño Grocery Store.
The woman behind the counter at La Alegra in Williamsburg (no. 31) recognized her brother hanging out in front of the store in my old picture. The waitress at La Placita, a Mexican restaurant on Myrtle Avenue (no. 86), started laughing at me, at the fact that nine years ago I’d taken a picture of the deli her restaurant had replaced, and found it hard to stop. She wasn’t laughing in a mean way, it just cracked her up. The two young women at the Metro PCS on Bedford Avenue (no. 89) both remembered the deli that used to be there from when they were teenagers. The employee at the register in the Dunkin Donuts on Franklin Avenue, on the other hand, didn’t even believe me when I told her my picture of the Super Express Deli Grocery (no. 72) was of the same building she worked in now.
At the Star Coffee Shop in Ditmas Park (no. 105), part of the original set because its sign (which hasn’t been changed) seemed more like a deli sign than a coffee shop sign, the Bangladeshi woman behind the counter didn’t take me up on my offer to send her the old picture, but she gave me a lentil fritter. It was the best snack I had all summer. I bought two more. Then I asked her why the samosas and fritters by the counter weren’t on the menu overhead. She only shrugged. I proposed, “Because they’re different, not part of the same menu?” She nodded. It occurred to me later that the answer she didn’t give was that they’re only there when she makes them.
A few stats. The set from 2008 has 112 pictures. One of these (no. 81) was of two delis that were next door to each other, and two (nos. 65 and 102) were of delis that were shuttered, probably permanently in both cases: so 113 Delis total, 111 open and 2 closed. Looking at them now, about a third have awnings or signs that seem to me to be of artistic or historical value. These either appear to have been hand-painted, or have the characteristic red and blue letters on a yellow awning, or were early adopters of the new digital look.
There are 76 open delis in the 2017 set. Of these, 15 have the same name and sign as they did in 2008, and another 14 have the same name on a different sign — that is, 29 delis, a just over a quarter of the total, are still in business as they were. Another 47 are still delis, but now operate under a different name. A further dozen were either shuttered or under renovation, and maybe half of these looked like they’d reopen soon. All told, nearly three-quarters of the original stores are still in the business. The Brooklyn deli is in no danger of extinction. The signs I liked most, however, are mostly gone.
Also gone are the payphones, every last one of the more than forty you can find in the 2008 pictures, not to mention all the advertisements for calling cards that used to be pasted in deli windows (the demise of those cards, thanks to Skype and WhatsApp, must have done a number on revenues). What’s new in 2017? A lot of trees, including some substantial enough to obscure the delis in front of which they stand. Floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Brown street signs in Crown Heights (no. 52). A huge church opposite the deli at the corner of Classon Avenue and Fulton Street (no. 61). Almost everywhere, much more sophisticated photo collages.
The fact that a quarter of the originals are no longer delis does not necessarily mean the overall number of delis has dropped much. I saw plenty of places that weren’t in the first set, like the 1068 Mini Mart Deli Grocery at 1068 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. Why didn’t I take a picture of it in 2008? It didn’t exist. The Google image of that address from June 2009 shows an empty storefront with a for rent sign in the window. Also, an unknown number of those that don’t appear in the new set have simply moved. The cook at Summerhill told me that the deli formerly there — the U.S. American Deli Corp. — hadn’t closed, but was now a few doors down, in the middle of the same block. Today it’s the Nostrand Organic Market Deli Grill.
Organic. Does the appearance of that word on a sign, along with a poster for craft beer in the window, mean that a deli has gone upmarket with a new product line for gentrifiers, created an atmosphere where old customers might feel unwelcome? Not really. Everyone still sells normal beer, too, and in most cases organic doesn’t mean much more than a few bags of Kettle Chips and some Green and Black’s Chocolate. The sandwiches, the sodas, the cigarettes, the lottery tickets, the low-fee ATM’s — these things haven’t changed.
It’s true that several of the new businesses are bars and cafés for gentrifiers, or at least largely for gentrifiers. In addition to Summerhill, the 2017 set includes, among others, Odd Fox Coffee in Greenpoint (no. 5), Until Tomorrow in Clinton Hill (no. 97) and the Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Prospect Heights (no. 77). But even more of the new businesses are the kind that cater to everyone. There’s the Dunkin Donuts on Franklin (no.72), there are two phone shops (nos. 67 and 89), a 99-cent store (no. 24), two optometrists (nos. 22 and 100), a beauty supply shop (no. 46), a martial arts institute (no. 63). The Alnawaras Deli & Grocery at 726 Broadway (no. 18) merged with the Sagal Meat Market II next door to form Sagal Food and Fruits, which I didn’t count as a deli this time because it’s now closer to a full-size grocery store. And of course there are addresses in flux, whose future status is unknown.
The Alnawaras Deli & Grocery at 726 Broadway merged with the Sagal Meat Market II next door to form Sagal Food and Fruits. Well, that’s what I concluded from my two pictures, but that’s not how it really happened. Google has a picture from September 2015 that shows neither Alnawaras Deli & Grocery nor Sagal Food and Fruits, but a different business with a different sign: Roshan’s Deli & Grocery. It was Roshan’s that merged with Sagal Meat Market II, not Alnawaras.
Likewise, Odd Fox Coffee on Manhattan Avenue didn’t, as might be assumed from my pictures, replace the Beata Delicatessen. Another café, Propeller, replaced Beata. When that happened Beata’s circa-2008 sign was taken down, and an older Beata sign was brifely visible. Propeller lasted from 2013 until early in 2017, when Odd Fox took over.
Does all this mean that New York is vanishing? Sure. But the deli wasn’t there forever, either. Vanishing is what New York does. Meanwhile, Odd Fox Coffee’s rent checks go to Mieszko and Beata Kalita, owners of the building and former proprietors of the Beata Delicatessen. They now live in Florida.
To catch all the businesses that come and go and all the renovations of their façades, you’d have to do this annually. And of course you’d have to want to. Once a decade or so is enough for me. If I’m around in 2026 or 2027 I’ll do it again. I’ll start in Ditmas Park, where I had the fritters.
After writing this essay I came across a website, 80s.nyc, that had a clickable map with a picture from the 1980s for most buildings in New York City. The pictures were taken by the City’s Department of Finance between 1983 and 1988 for real estate appraisals. Now there’s a special page for them on the Department of Buildings website. You can order a high-quality print of any address that interests you, but they aren’t cheap.
I found a 1980s match for 97 of my pictures. The images have been digitized from microfilm, so their quality isn’t great. Signs are hard to read, and in some cases, thanks to the odd angles chosen by the photographers, can’t even be seen. It’s often impossible to make out more than one word on a sign. Luckily, the most common legible word is grocery.
I have few more stats. Of the 97 pictures from the 80s, I found 26 to be useless, by which I mean, I couldn’t tell whether or not they showed a deli. This left 71. I divided these into three categories: a deli in the 80s, probably a deli in the 80s and not a deli in the 80s.
Just under half of the 71 fall in the first category, and almost a quarter are in the second. If the ratios hold for the missing and illegible pictures, about 80 of the delis in my 2008 pictures were delis two decades earlier, and about 60 of these 80 are still delis today.
Only two of the delis in my 2008 pictures, however, seem to have the same signs they had in the 80s. By coincidence, they’re a block apart, both on Classon Avenue. One of the two, Yemen Classon, was my corner deli when I lived in Crown Heights. I had no idea then that its sign had been there for twenty years. Somehow, thinking about it now, its antiquity in a way seems greater, and its survival into the twenty-first century more improbable, than any of the curiosities you could see on the other side of Eastern Parkway in the Ancient Near Eastern Galleries of the Brooklyn Museum.
Sad to say, these 1980s holdovers stand no chance of making it to the twenty-second century. Both Yemen Classon and the nearby Nahshal Supermarket changed their signs between 2008 and 2017.