As I scrolled my timeline, half asleep and with one eye open, the song “Warning” played in my head as I read this headline: “Hip Restaurant Plays Old School Hip-Hop Loved by Neighborhood’s Former Residents.” The immortal Notorious B.I.G.‘s lyrics summarize my outrage: What the fuck is this?/ Upsetting me at 6:45 in the morning/ Now I’m yawnin’/ Wipe the coal from my eye/ Wondering “who’s writing about gentrification and why?”
I read the article about a business proudly profiting off of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, its previous minority inhabitants, its identity, its cultural essence. It angered me. Because that’s what’s happening all over New York City, my hometown of Brooklyn, and is even making its way uptown and into the Bronx. No one is safe anymore. Moments later, I realized that the headline was from “The Hard Times,” a comedy website. The article was satire. I was relieved.
I scrolled some more and saw another gentrification story in Fast Company. “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete,” read the headline. “Damn, these satirical articles are popping today,” I thought. This one wasn’t a joke, though.
According to the Fast Company article, two ex-Google bozos started a vending machine company named Bodega. Apparently, they’ve never used Google to look up what a bodega is, but they felt okay using the word to name their business after it. The article made it seem like these app-operated vending machines were going to be the Uber of corner stores. And when it came to the potentially offensive name, CEO Paul McDonald said he wasn’t “particularly concerned about it” because his company did its due diligence.
“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,” he said.
In New York, bodegas aren’t just a corner store. You’re on your way to school and need a hot baconeggandcheese breakfast for that gurgling belly? Bodega. You want yesterday’s newspaper for a school project, collage or to see what happened to the Knicks? Bodega. Need extra boxes to ship something to your family in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic? Bodega. Need to just talk to someone and feel like a human being without having to buy a drink at the bar? Bodega. Middle of the night and you run out of pampers/ coffee/ tampons/ toothpaste/ cigarettes/ malta/ cereal/ condoms/ razors/ paperclips/ notebooks/ pencils/ handballs? Bo-fucking-dega.
To say I have an intimate relationship with bodegas is an understatement.
The bodega was where I once did a backflip and showed off some some dance moves. It’s where I’d walk up and down the three small aisles pretending I was shopping, so I could escape the summer heat for a minute. Where us kids would go in to ask for help turning on the fire hydrant so we could play. We sat on the bodega’s milk crates and pet the cat that naturally found the sliced bread a warm and comfortable place to lay when she wasn’t hunting for mice.
My bodega was where I once ran away from home because I figured, “Well, at least they have food there. And Marvel comic book cards, quarter-waters and a cat I can play with.” I was four years old. And sure, I was in big trouble when my family found me, but that’s where I thought to go. The safest place in my young mind was the bodega.
CREDIT: ackniculous / Flickr
My brother once got slammed into the glass of the bodega during a fist fight. The window smashed all around him. Jaime, the bodega owner, called the police but didn’t press charges and never came after my family for money. I did all the shopping there from then on.
The bodega was where I found out I was poor. I’d buy the bread and eggs for the house with food stamp bills that were brown, fuchsia, purple and turquoise. I’d compare it with other folks’ money, as they lay their crinkled green bills on the counter. I realized then that my money wasn’t “real” money. I learned to hold onto my rainbow-colored bills until other customers left. Jaime let me wander until they did. On the rare occasions I went in with actual cash, when a dollar was given to me here or there by family friends, Jaime would give me his undivided attention as I would belabor over what to buy. “Two Chick-o Sticks, um a Swedish Fish, one Sixlets and a plastic-wrapped caramel. Ooh, ooh or a Peanut Chew? Or no, how about a…” was how it would go for at least an hour at a time.
The bodega is where I’d spend my grandma’s last dollar for a bagel with cream cheese on the nights when she was too tired from working in the factory to cook, or just didn’t have enough money for a proper dinner. It’s where I’d bow my head as I’d hand Jaime an I.O.U. scribbled on a piece of crumpled paper and say “thank you” under my breath as he handed me a bag full of food and said, “Don’t worry. We all need help sometimes.” I held my tears, felt the heat of embarrassment on my cheeks and neck, staring down at my own little flip-flopped toes in shame as I accepted his kindness and shuffled out, the bell on the door ringing behind me. It’s where I’d go for candles on the nights where the electricity got shut off because the light bill didn’t get paid and I still had homework to do.
CREDIT: ianqui / Flickr
I fucking loved my bodega.
Bodegas are the original start up. Immigrants working hard and making something for themselves. Bringing up neighborhoods and creating community. Bodegas are already a brand.
Jaime, like many bodega owners, is both Latino and an immigrant. He’s a Dominican dad who I remember listened to “El Vacilón de la Mañana,” wore his hair in a small, tight afro and kept his shirt open enough to see his gold crucifix. I remember him tending to his customers with his cordless phone receiver glued to one ear, often speaking to his family back home using the long distance calling cards he sold in his store (one of the perks of running your own bodega). He was a small business owner, helping foster a sense of community while getting to know his customers. He was a friend and a neighbor, and a role model to his family back in DR, to whom he sent money, and to the kids in the area. Jaime was living his American dream, until gentrification priced him out of the neighborhood and he closed up for good. I don’t know what happened to him, but I know what it looks like when gentrification tries to scrub away the Latino and immigrant influences of a neighborhood.
What these ex-Google tech bros are trying to do, is the definition of whitewashing.
Their business sounds just like their bodega cat logo looks: flat and soulless. It’s nowhere near as representative as what it is trying to be. In plain Brooklynese: shit is wack, B.
Sure, fine, make a vending machine where you can buy things with your phone. That doesn’t even sound like a bad idea, but to call it “Bodega,” stick a damn cat emoji on it and claim to want to replace “centralized shopping locations,” effectively removing what they represent and who they benefit, which are people of color in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods for whom the bodega is a central part of their lives? Yeah, fuck you.
Down with your glorified glass cooler. They’re missing the most important element of bodegas. The people. They are what make bodegas special. These immigrant store owners (many of whom are Latino), have created spaces that feel like home, that feel safe and, most importantly, that feel like family.