The life and death of bodega culture
Just like the dollar slice, Broadway theater and jaywalking, bodegas are a cultural phenomenon native to New York City. These omnipresent big-city convenience stores sell all manner of everyday essentials, from cold cuts, hot sandwiches and cigarettes to newspapers, flowers and beer. Often located on a corner, the shops have become indelible and intrinsic, a permanent fixture in the great house of Gotham.
Even though no two bodegas are alike and can go by many names — deli, grocery, food center — you know a bodega when you see one. Most of them share a distinct aesthetic — yellow and red awnings, a sign indicating an ATM in the back, a smattering of window ads, a wall of lottery tickets and a resident cat.
Bodega, the Spanish word for “warehouse,” was originally adopted by Hispanics from the Caribbean — mainly Puerto Ricans who came to New York in droves after World War Two — as a term to describe small stores. It eventually began being used interchangeably with “candy store” or “newsstand” by people outside Spanish-speaking communities.
Today a bodega is a lifeline that anchors people to the neighborhoods they live and work in. Owned by Koreans, Italians, Yemenis, Bengalis and many other immigrant communities, these commonplace corner shops boast immense social and cultural capital.
But due to rising rents, chain store competition and rapidly changing neighborhoods, these family-owned businesses are closing down. Their dwindling numbers explain why bodegas took the spotlight in 2017, generating meaningful discussion around the implication of their loss.
We’ve written before about British artist Lucy Sparrow’s “8 ‘Till Late” installation. The entire exhibit was a massive art piece modeled after a Manhattan bodega and all the items it traditionally sells… except each item was made from felt and handstitched by the artist herself. The cloth-based fake products are intended to remind us of simpler, more affordable times and warn us about the perils of gentrification. It’s fitting for the exhibit to be located in the heavily gentrified Meatpacking district, a neighborhood which at this point has precious few meatpackers left. It’s hard to miss the irony, though, that the felt installation was sponsored by The Standard, a high-end hotel and one of the neighborhood’s biggest “gentrifiers.”
Lucy Sparrow’s fauxdega art was also featured in Stacey Bendet’s presentation of Alice + Olivia’s ready-to-wear Spring 2018 collection. In her vibrant and immersive gallery, Bendet reimagined the Chelsea Hotel as a set of eight rooms and invited eight artists to interpret the spaces. Not surprisingly, Lucy Sparrow decorated her assigned kitchen with snacks, drinks and condiments made from felt. Not only did the bodega aesthetic form the backdrop, it also inspired Hostess- and Sugar Babies-themed clutches for the Spring collection.
Nor is this the only example of bodegas flirting with fashion. Rihanna, sporting a badass, futuristic look, graced Paper magazine’s March 2017 #BreakTheRules cover by posing as a high-fashion clerk in an East Village bodega. Stylist Rox Brown posed wearing Gucci on a bodega checkout counter in a May 2017 Elle profile feature. A$AP Rocky brought the quintessential New York experience to a pop-up store in London’s Selfridges by recreating a Harlem bodega to house his exclusive products.
The fashion industry has a funny way of taking the most unassuming, ordinary things and making them cooler, grittier and more symbolic than ever.
Bodega the Vending Machine
All hell broke loose for the two Google veterans that decided to create a vending machine stocked with convenience store items in key locations and name it a “Bodega”. Incensed bodega loyalists are calling it a predatory move to drive family-owned businesses out of existence while appropriating their culture for profit.
“Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you,” said Paul McDonald, one of Bodega’s cofounders. In an age when the preservation of communities takes precedence over “convenience,” it’s safe to say that Bodega’s tone-deaf concept is a symptom of capitalism gone wrong.
On the other hand, two Lower East Side-based artists are mourning a decline in community connections by setting up an art installation in Seward Park. The exhibit erects life-size photographs of four recently shuttered mom-and-pop stores on the Lower East Side: a bodega, coffee shop, vintage store and newsstand. By paying homage to these stores, artists Karla and James Murray remind us that our love for bodegas runs deeper than our fascination for consumerism or convenience; they fuel the neighborhood’s spirit and become the connecting thread of communities.
Bodegas represent a constant for us, providing familiar comfort in this ever-changing, often-alienating, bustling city. They symbolize hard work and a means of economic survival, especially in a world where the idealized American Dream is slowly crumbling. They also serve as a reminder that immigrants are a part of our social fabric, as is demonstrated by the Yemeni-American bodega owners who in February 2017 shut down their businesses for a day to protest President Trump’s anti-Muslim Executive Order on immigration.
It’s important for our dialogue about the life and death of bodega culture to pervade art, fashion and business. Losing our traditional NYC mainstays would be unfortunate. You need only look at this Bodega Cats of Instagram page to be convinced.
Photography by Johan Vipper, Anna Milivojevich, Whitney Burnett and Josephine Encarnacion