The best way to tell if someone has ever called New York City home is to ask them what they call their neighborhood corner store. It’s one of those pieces of slang that’s hard to get rid of. Somewhere between a 7-11, deli, and grocery is the bodega, a Spanish term that has more to do with wine cellars than mini-marts.
The relationship between a New Yorker and their bodega is a sacred thing. Do they carry your favorite ice cream or deliver sandwiches at five in the morning? Does the owner know you by purchase if not by name? Sometimes New Yorkers on vacation miss the local bodega cat as much as their own pets. Outside of New York, the slang for this kind of shop has little meaning, but visitors catch on fast. You can measure a neighborhood’s gentrification by the arrival of items like coconut water, chia seed yogurts, or kombucha on a bodega’s shelves. High rents and chain stores like CVS, Duane Reade, or the ubiquitous 7-11 lay on the pressure. Is the era of the bodega coming to an end?
Photographer Gail Quagliata first got worried about the city’s bodegas while student teaching in Alphabet City. “I noticed over the semester that some of the bodegas I walked past were closing,” she said. Rather than chalking it up to changing times, she set out to document them – taking a photograph of every single bodega in Manhattan.
The project took nine months and around 20-30 hours of walking, photographing, and chatting with bodega owners and customers each week. Though some might argue that night is the best time to see bodegas in action, Quagliata was only interested in shooting during the day. She started at nine in the morning and walked sometimes until dusk. Quagliata has now taken on the herculean task of sorting through the resulting 10,000 images by the end of the month, hoping to turn the project into a book.
At first, the project was more of a curiosity. Just how many bodegas were there in NYC and how different could they all be? To make sure she found every bodega Quagliata committed to walking every street in Manhattan. She crossed them off on maps at first and later switched to GPS. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started but now it’s been a disappearing love letter to the city,” Quagliata said. “I’ve gone back for reshoots and the places were already gone.”
Though bodegas might seem like overkill on a block with a grocery store, drug store, and green cart selling fruits and vegetables on the street, in areas where food options are limited, they’re the difference between a food desert and hunger desert. “In Union Square people can go to Whole Foods or the Food Emporium but up on 207th street, there might not be a supermarket that’s accessable on foot,” Quagliata said. “The bodegas fill those needs and cater to the type of person who lives in the area.” One of the most memorable bodegas she encountered was a Chinese-Latino market that was split down the middle—on one side you found bags of rice and on the other cans of Goya beans and chili peppers.
According to Quagliata, “That’s something 7-11 can’t do.” And it’s not just the residents who are saddened when their local bodega goes out of business. In the East Village, Quagliata was photographing a bodega when a the owner of the store came out and began telling her how long he’d been there and what it was like today. He told her that they came from Poland and opened the store but didn’t know how much longer they’d be here. When the bodegas go, the neighborhood goes too.
-Tove K. Danovich