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An Interview With Jeff Sisson—Bodega Mapper of New York

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Jeff Sisson will be the first to tell you that he has no idea how many bodegas there are in New York City. "I've always been very aggressive in trying to explain that my data is nowhere near complete. [Bodegas are] this organic thing that are very loosely represented by my data." But Sisson has a list of 1,500 businesses that adhere closely to the rubric of bodega, and is slowly mapping them in an interactive project on the Internet. His list began with listings for off-premise liquor licenses found on the site of the New York State Liquor Authority. Visitors to Sisson's site can view these businesses on Google Maps' Street View feature and confirm that they are or aren't bodegas, and affirmatives are marked on the map. The loose, crowd-sourced designation of what makes a bodega fits in with Sisson's thoughts on what makes the NYC stores unique. "Bodegas are institutions of convenience; they're as meaningful to you as they need to be, and that's where they're at their best."

How would you define a bodega? What's your definition?

I'm sort of a fan of minimum viable recognition. I have simple definitions. It's not a supermarket; it's not a gas station; it doesn't have a large freezer, because usually if you have the infrastructure to support a frozen section you're in a scale beyond bodegas. That's it. I don't like the idea of putting restrictions on what a bodega is. I feel like it's the porn adage: you know it when you see it. A marketplace in the West Village that someone there might call a bodega, might be completely out of the range of what someone in Flushing, Queens would call a bodega, and that might also be completely different from what someone in City Island might call a bodega. It's local; it's also not a good answer. There are many categories of business where you know exactly what you are seeing. Most coffee shops look like a coffee shop; most bars look like a bar. There's a weird kind of variance of what is and isn't a bodega.

There are approximately 1,500 bodegas on your list. How comprehensive is the map?

You've seen the map. The Bronx isn't on there barely at all. Staten Island's not there at all. Eastern Queens isn't on there. Some parts of Northern Manhattan are spotty.

To make it from the list onto the map, a place has to be peer-reviewed and approved...

A human has to see it—and there's no way of knowing whether this person is from New York or not—and say that he thinks it looks like a bodega, and then it makes it onto the map. My data set is purposefully a very blunt and stupid one because [bodegas] are a sort of untrackable phenomena, unless you're the government and have the resources to go to every single bodega.

I've always been very aggressive in trying to explain that my data is nowhere near complete. It's this organic thing that very loosely is represented by my data. The thing I want the most is for some government agency or non-profit to look at this in a real way, knowing more about how how they operate or how communities are served by them. Maybe there need to be legal protections in place for bodegas. Maybe you shouldn't be able to bulldoze one without creating an equivalent local food business in the same neighborhood. I always insist that my map is just a small subset, partially because I want someone to study it. I want someone to walk to every single bodega in NY, like a census.

How long have you been mapping bodegas, and why did you start?

Since the spring of 2009. I started it because at that period of time I was cooking a lot of rice and beans, going to a lot of bodegas, so they were on the brain. This was right around the time that there were a lot of developments in real life stuff making its way to the Internet in the form of a business or a service. Not that Yelp started at this time, but you were starting to see that the Internet was not just an abstract place, but you were seeing a lot of ways in which people were using the Internet to integrate with their real life routines and that was interesting to me. I started thinking of categories of information that by definition would not fit. I was thinking of things that would not occur to programmers—categories of information that, no matter how hard you tried, could not be easily scoured. An immediate one was bodegas. So of course I thought "How could you scour that?"

I think the specific inspiration for using the liquor licenses as a means of doing that...have you ever heard of the site EveryBlock? Their premise is aggregating publicly available city data for your neighborhood. I noticed what kind of businesses were popping up when they added liquor licenses--a lot of these were bodegas. In the NY context at least, the bulk of these things were strange, fanciful, or things that could only be a bodega. If you were in Omaha you would see these names and think, "Oh, just another business applying for a liquor license." But if you live here you think, "That sounds like a deli. That sounds like some guy or some family applying with their name as an LLC. That was kind of the spark that led to trying to aggregate that. But because I was focused on it as this last holdout of data that would be infinitely difficult to track, I wanted to set it up in a way that would make no buts about it being an authoritative source.

I played around in the beginning with—the model of what I didn't want it to be was Yelp, which has metadata and tags, like hours of operation. I wanted it to be the opposite of that. You can search my site, but the basic form is just this insanely long list. Right now, there's something like 1,500 or so on the list. The best way to communicate that was to just by showing the whole thing; there's no context in which someone would need or want to know a giant list of bodegas. From that to every other design decision, I was trying to communicate that thought that this is just a list of things that most people would consider bodegas. It's not a Yelp. It's not made for searching or reviewing. I don't like the attitude that a lot of forum-like internet web sites take, where the idea is that you as the user are empowered to say what you want and do what you want around this piece of real life piece of information. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to empower the owners of bodegas and the way I did that is by using the name as listed on the liquor license, which is a bit obtuse sometimes. But there's this tool on the site that allows people to look at the [Google Maps] street view and add the name that's on the awning, which are often very interesting or funny or unusual or worthy of note. So I wanted that to be another big aspect of tracking the different sorts of names that were in use.

Another thing I encoded in the site is a blank text field with each [bodega] and anyone can enter anything, or delete anything for that matter. The idea being, that you'd only know your local bodegas, either by name or you'd be searching by the ones nearby. So any given person is really only encouraged to annotate bodegas that they're familiar with, by saying "This is great" or "This place makes a great roast beef sandwich" or "Open weird hours," but you don't have this kind of Yelp inclination to annotate everything depending on whether you have a connection to it or not.

Why are bodegas such an important part of New York?

I suspect that the reason why bodegas continue to exist is that there are specific features they have that other businesses dont. And one of them—and this is complete inference based on patterns but not an expert opinion—I suspect that a lot of bodegas survive b/c they sell beer, either at rates that are comparable or better than a supermarket. I suspect that selling beer is a major component of bodegas, as are sandwiches. The way I structure how I think about bodegas is "what's the average use case?" Someone who's going to one—why are they going to it? I think of sandwiches, beer, soda, and last minute items.

And I also think of credit. It's one of the last businesses in NY, on the whole that in some pockets operates on credit, which is kind of insane to think about. I have no figures on this, but I can tell you that bodegas near where I have lived in the past, certainly some that are near various housing projects, and presumably elsewhere as well, will have little tabs that they'll pull out, and they'll write down what people buy. It's sort of a substitute for a friendlier check cashing thing, where they know that you're on welfare or you know you're getting your check at the same time every week, so they're willing to extend you credit, knowing that they're going to get paid at some point. [This was in South and East Williamsburg] So that's interesting to me that bodegas do that. Dagostinos, they're not doing that. That's a service that bodegas can provide, that maybe keeps them in business. Obviously, providing credit is probably not a great business to be in, because you're catering to people without a lot of means, but it is something they can offer that someone else can't that will bring customers to them versus someone else.

Bodegas are institutions of convenience; they're as meaningful to you as they need to be, and that's where they're at their best. Not that supermarkets don't have all these things, but bodegas fit into this class of NY institutions that are more defined by their avaailability than by what they offer. and I like that. There's a trend in NY and other citieis that's about embracing the urban and offering better quality stuff at higher prices, but I don't think that's an equitable vision of food offerings in NY. And I also think that that's great if you live in one of six neighborhoods in Brooklyn or one in 10 neighborhoods in Manhattan, but for the rest of the neighborhoods, there's bodegas. It's like Chinese food.

Do you have a favorite bodega story?

Someone had left a note on the site regarding a bodega with a person's given name on the awning--some guy or girl, I don't remember. Someone had left this kind of, not a Missed Connection, but a sort of plea, they hadn't seen this person whose name was on the business --they were just deeply mising and out of touch with this person and this was the only Googleable presence of this idividual online. I wish I could say that it was a case that happened more often. Most of the traffic to the site comes from direct Google searches for a specific name. It's not melodramatic. It's so subtle that I knew it was genuine. It was very gratifying. You'd never see that on Yelp; you wouldn't see someone trying to get in touch w/ a bodega owner that maybe they were in love with, or was a family member they had had a fight with, so I thought that was cool.
· Jeff Sisson's Bodega Map/List []