© Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo
Matt Blitz
June 22, 2017

Despite dwindling numbers, bodegas are still a common sight in New York City. From Manhattan to Staten Island, they dot the city with colorful awnings, narrow aisles and sketchy looking deli meat. It's hard to define what exactly a bodega is, but, as the saying goes, you know it when you see it. After digging deep (like reaching into the back of the bodega fridge for unexpired milk), here's the history of the little convience store, how it came to be and what the future holds for this New York institution.

Corner stores have a long tradition in New York. In the 19th century, there were no such thing as chain groceries, so each neighborhood had its own small store catering to the specific population. German-owned shops, in particular, popularized the selling of deli meat over the counter. With the first Jewish delis emerging in the 1920s, sandwiches became the lunch item busy travelers could take with them hustling from one place to the next. According to the LA Times, it was Puerto Rican and Dominican business owners that first called the corner store a bodega. In the 1960s, Dominican immigrants streamed into America because of the political instability in their country due in large part to the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Throughout the decade and into the 70s, entrepreneurs opened small stores in their new American neighborhoods to provide supplies to their Spanish-speaking neighbors. They called them bodegas because they sold wine, but it was by far not the only thing in their inventory.

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What made these stores so important to the community's fabric was that they sold items often not found in regular groceries, like plantains in Puerto Rican neighborhoods and tortillas in Mexican neighborhoods. They also sold basic items in smaller sizes than bigger stores and served as a gathering place for neighbors to talk about local happenings. "(Bodegas) become a place where people get together and go over their daily news," a spokesman for the Bodega Association of the United States told Time in 2012, "and people become part of their communities."

For several decades, the bodega expanded out from just a few neighborhoods and could be found on nearly every New York street corner, but by the mid-2000s, bodegas' presence started to decrease. This was due to a number of reasons. By nature, a higher concentration of bodegas are located in lower income neighborhoods, which studies show can lead to higher crime rates. In 2002, a rash of 12 robbery homicides of bodega owners led the city to install security cameras in stores, but the crime wave still scared potential customers. Meanwhile, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, the average commercial rent rose by as much as 34 percent in Manhattan over the last decade. This has lead to smaller businesses packing it in and bigger retail stores like Duane Reade or CVS, who can afford to pay the higher rent, moving in. Additionally, at least according to anecdotal evidence, the demographics of the neighborhood residents have gradually shifted, turning what used to be mainly Puerto Rican or Mexican communities into ethnically mixed ones, rendering the advantages of having a neighborhood bodega somewhat moot. "The neighborhood has changed; what people want has changed," a Manhattan bodega owner told the New York Times last August, "Lots of the people who used to live here couldn't afford it anymore."

None of this is to say the bodega is headed the way of the horse-drawn carriage or VHS tape anytime soon. In 2015, about 75 bodegas closed for good in New York, but that's a relatively small percentage in comparison to over 12,000 still open. A rise in "green markets," as in bodegas that offer fresh produce and other more healthy food choices, are keeping many still in business. There's also been a wave of nostalgic awareness of these yellowed awning beauties, with projects like last year's attempt by this photographer to capture on film every bodega in Manhattan.

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In the end, the bodega will survive - albeit perhaps in lower numbers - because it fills a niche. Be it empanadas, a Sunday newspaper or a sketchy chicken salad sandwich at two in the morning, the bodega is part of the New York City experience. But please check the bread for mold before buying.

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