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What’s New York Without Its Bodegas

October 29, 2018

The concept of the bodega itself is the antithesis of a luxury service – it’s where anyone, from anywhere, can get the basic necessities they need.

As advocates across New York City continue the battle to stem the loss of countless beloved neighborhood institutions as a result of high rents and long-term commercial vacancies, the response of their opposition is that the market will adjust itself. However, little has been said about who the market will adjust itself for. The slow creep of WeWork across New York – in offices, residential space, and health clubs – is expanding its reach to the most sacred of New York institutions: the bodega.

As reported earlier this month in SecretNYC and this morning in The Real Deal, there is a new attempt to appropriate New Yorker’s favorite neighborhood institution, the bodega. What’s so infuriating about this latest effort is the fact that it, like previous attempts from the real estate industry and big business, appropriates the cultural value of the bodega while simultaneously making it harder for original, immigrant operated bodegas to survive.

WeWork’s new WeMRKT initiative rebrands bodegas as a luxury good. Similarly, the Bonberi brand has opened something that could perhaps be loosely referred to as a bodega on Bleecker street, nestled between for rent signs and vacant storefronts. The fact that such a store has come to be on Bleecker Street, a corridor made infamous by both a study of vacant storefronts and efforts of the real estate industry to flip entire communities, should surprise no one.

While it’s enticing to pick on individual actors, this shift is a phenomenon that’s playing out at scale. It’s true that New York – as the pulsing, living city that it is – will always shift and grow and change. But it’s always been a haven for immigrants and working people. The concept of the bodega itself is the antithesis of a luxury service – it’s where anyone, from anywhere, can get the basic necessities they need. The bodega allows for cross pollination across lines of race, class, gender, and language. It remains a stalwart in neighborhoods across the city and in the popular imagination of what New York is because it represents what New York has been and can continue to be – a place vital to many different kinds of people. Replacing the bodega with a luxury brand removes this possibility.

If New York continues to change purely in response to the market and to big business, its physical and cultural attributes will also continue to shift in favor of the market and big business. WeWork has explicitly stated that it hopes the new retail spaces will shift the culture of its offices in order to “improve productivity”. Increased productivity at the cost of community culture is a steep price to pay.

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