A Crown Heights bodega remains a home for high hopes and high stakes
By Kadia Tubman
Twelve years after my family lost our apartment, I came home to find the Crown Heights I’d known had been wiped off the map. I stood frozen in the shadow of the mammoth new condominium at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway, my eyes darting from the wine shop that had once been a beauty salon to the Starbucks that used to be a discount store. There was nothing left of the neighborhood where I had grown up, not another brown face, except for those around Quisqueya Grocery Store, the bodega I frequented as a child. Stepping inside was like stepping into a time warp. The dusty 3-Liter soda bottles and sagging plastic bags of Wonder Bread brought me back to junior high. There was the same bachata and merengue music I remembered, the same tabloid spread across the counter, the same square-faced man catching up on the news. I re-introduced myself to Modesto Baez, who remembered me. “You had a twin,” he recalled. “And your mom drove a red jeep.”
That recognition is what has kept Baez in business despite his adamant refusal to renovate or overhaul inventory to conform to the neighborhood’s new demographics. What he did for me is what Baez does for the dwindling number of longtime residents who managed to stay. It’s why longtime locals refer to this as “the real bodega.”
“The store is like ‘Cheers,’” said Elijah Dunton, 54, who lives around the corner and waits outside every day for Baez to open. “You want to go where everyone knows you.”
When Baez, 58, opened his bodega here 35 years ago, Crown Heights was a hardly a destination. But to him it has always been special. Five subway lines meet on the corner, and cultural mainstays like the Brooklyn Museum and Botanical Garden are a short walk away.
Over the past decade, others have come to see what Baez saw when he immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Beckoned by a nearly 15% drop in serious crime, a flood of young, highly educated and increasingly wealthy new residents, many of them white, have remade the neighborhood in their image. “Ten years ago, you didn’t have any bars,” he told me. “Now you have 20.”
The change has been bad for business, Baez said. “No one buys food,” he told me, gesturing to the idle deli area.
Instead, the average Quisqueya customer is here for one thing: the lottery. Baez will see the same people at least twice a day and the average customer spends about $100 per week on tickets. Many, like Dunton spend $40 or more a day.
Customers waiting in line for tickets are mostly middle-aged, have Caribbean accents and call Baez by his nickname, “Papi.” Baez amicably refers to them as “island people,” like himself. Like him, they have remained as families like mine were displaced because of rent stabilized housing. Dunton has held onto his apartment for 15 years and said he would buy and combine three houses in Crown Heights if he won big. Another frequent customer, Eli LaRoche, 84, has lived in the same apartment since 1968. Although the retiree lives comfortably on his pension, he plays in the hope of leaving a better life for his children. “You have hope that you will win,” he said, holding up his scratched ticket. When a friend from the neighborhood died, he started playing the man’s address and won $500 after two losses.
He’s not alone. Near the cashier counter is a small New York Lottery monitor that displays, “$10,176 were awarded to Quisqueya last week. Could be you?” Last week’s lottery revenue amounted to $15,375.50 from lottery tickets and $7550 from scratch tickets.
Quisqueya’s biggest winner to date is a local landlord named Trevor, whose family has owned their Eastern Parkway apartment building for 27 years. A paper certificate on the in the window memorializes the $30,000 jackpot he won in 2013, money he said he used to repair his grandmother’s roof in Guyana.
He plays twice a day.
“They play everything,” said the cashier, Baez’s niece, about the senior customers. “Their whole check in one day.”
LaRoche says he doesn’t mind losing five dollars every now and then. “The more you play, the more you lose,” he said, scratching a $2-ticket on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway. “But you expect to win.”
For players like him and Dunton, buying tickets from Baez is about beating the odds.
“I’m a dreamer,” Dunton explained. “If I stop dreaming, I’m dead.”
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