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Max Touhey | www.metouhey.com

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The future of the bodega is clear

New design guidelines for New York’s iconic corner stores may erase an aesthetically important part of the urban landscape

New York City’s bodegas are more than just delis; they’re coffee shops, community centers, watering holes, snack bars, places to gossip or gather information. The local bodega is where you go to get your morning egg and cheese, buy beer, satisfy that midnight snack craving, and meet your neighbors. They’re culturally vital institutions and a major part of what defines a neighborhood’s character. They’ve become synonymous with New York, so much so that in 2017, a brazen tech company tried to co-opt the bodega—albeit with the promise of replacing the personal touch of your local corner store with a vending machine.

But bodegas aren’t immune to the market forces that have hammered New York’s small businesses. Higher commercial rents, massive ground-floor retail spaces, and zoning changes have had a huge impact on small businesses, shuttering more than a thousand each month and leaving a glut of vacant storefronts. The look of bodegas is also changing, with incentive programs from city agencies and nonprofit organizations encouraging store owners to shed their current hodgepodge exteriors for shiny, corporate-style glass frontage.

But as local bodegas trade in their hand-painted signage and idiosyncratic look for a cleaner, updated visual identity, it leads to a question: What are we losing?

Michael Silber, a designer and artist who has lived in Brooklyn for 15 years, runs Deli Grossery, a digital archive of New York’s unique small businesses. To date, he has photographed and mapped over 1,750 bodegas throughout the boroughs. When he started the project in 2014, his goal “was to capture the most outlandish and inventive photoshop collages [he] could find… posters that combined giant sweaty sandwiches, New York cityscapes, and watermarked stock photos.”

But things have changed in the past five years. “Over the years I’ve noticed many bodegas being stripped of their original character as their storefronts are converted to generic glass and steel facades,” he says. Now, Silber focuses on capturing the design details that are unique to bodegas, such as “original signs and architectural features (red and yellow steel awnings decorated with hand-lettered type and lined with tri-colored light bulbs). I also began to gravitate to anything custom-made or handwritten. The more unique, the better.”

Independent storefronts, however, have to compete with monolithic retailers like Rite Aid or Whole Foods, the design of which rarely has any cultural or aesthetic connection to their setting. While Silber was adamant that “bodegas and independent storefronts epitomize New York’s diversity” and that “they tell the story of our neighborhoods,” bigger chains succeed by doing just the opposite: by looking the same, no matter what city they are in.

A bodega in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which closed earlier this year.

But the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) has a plan to bring these shops into the 21st century: Make them look more like corporate chains. If you’ve noticed that your neighborhood bodega looks more slick lately, with new glass frontage, less cluttered signage, and interior lighting that stays on all night, it may be because the SBS, often partnering with other organizations like local nonprofits and business improvement districts (BIDs), offer grants to local shopkeepers for these storefront upgrades.

Blaise Backer, deputy commissioner of SBS’s Neighborhood Development Division, says that the agency’s commercial revitalization efforts are largely aimed at getting small businesses up to code so owners don’t get slapped with fines by the Department of Buildings. For instance, the SBS guidelines on security gates echo a city law that says any new gates must be 70 percent transparent. Backer also emphasized that the SBS “typically works with the existing built environment, historic structures, tenement buildings … and in many cases [we] try to uncover historic details and interesting architecture, and decluttering and simplifying [storefronts].”

Other parts of the current storefront guidelines, recently updated in 2016, go beyond simple code compliance to impose minimalist design principles: “Graffiti gives neighborhoods the appearance of being unsafe and ignored.” “Don’t have too many signs, posters, or products that clutter windows.” “Don’t put too much information on signs. They appear cluttered and are hard to read.” “Don’t fill transom windows with…opaque materials. They make entrances unsightly.”

SBS isn’t the only organization in New York working on storefront revitalization efforts. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) partners with Citi Community Development (yes, that Citi) to “support the revitalization of communities around the country.” LISC is a national organization that works as an “intermediary” nonprofit, providing access to funding and other resources for underserved places and people. (It worked to restore small businesses along the beach after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, for example.)

LISC NYC continues to work across the boroughs on vital projects, partnering with the city and local community nonprofits. One of these programs, LISC’s Commercial Corridor Challenge, began in 2017 and aimed to fund the renovation of storefronts in historically underinvested neighborhoods. The program began with a round of funding to businesses in East New York, Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, and Bay Street in Staten Island; another set of grantees was announced this September, with investments going to commercial corridors in Washington Heights, Jackson Heights in Queens, and Morris Heights and Norwood in the Bronx.

In a Wall Street Journal article from 2018 with the benign title “New York Helps Give Some of Its Iconic Bodegas a Makeover,” the Commercial Corridor Challenge is presented as a benevolent service to struggling business owners. “Out will go the bulletproof-glass windows cluttered with stickers and signs,” it declared, to serve the new “customers asking for fresh juices, organic vegetables and fancier beers.”

Sounds like a great deal, right? It is for the business owners lucky enough to obtain grants, but every deal has a catch. The guidelines for these LISC storefront improvements also promote a very specific aesthetic: “By increasing the transparency, lighting, and physical attractiveness of businesses, the program aims to enhance commercial corridors, boost foot traffic, and contribute to a greater sense of safety in target areas.” The guide displays photos of sparkling clear glass facades and tastefully unobtrusive signage, bright under the kind of lighting that you might find at an upscale strip mall. Bodegas with big awnings and windows covered by signage or newspaper, in this view, are less than ideal at best and a danger to the neighborhood at worst. But the storefront features that signify neglect to some might also convey a sense of comfort and community to longtime customers.

Eva Alligood, the interim executive director at LISC NYC, was quick to tout the success of the Commercial Corridor Challenge and made it clear that the guidelines are merely expert suggestions. “It’s not about pushing out existing businesses, and saying you know, you’re part of the old guard and you’re gonna have to change with the times,” Alligood says. “It’s about helping those businesses stay competitive, and stay in business, and actually increase their business.”

To see what this looks like in practice, I walked from Broadway Junction down Fulton Street in Cypress Hills to see the effects of LISC’s project for myself. In person, the commercial corridor was a much more intimate space than I’d expected; I had assumed that Fulton stayed wide and bright like it is from downtown Brooklyn to Bed-Stuy, with big sidewalks and lots of light. But under the J/M/Z tracks in Cypress Hills, the thoroughfare is shady and narrow. There were more people sitting out in chairs, and less pedestrian traffic. I couldn’t help but notice all the construction (a recent rezoning will bring more than 6,000 units of housing in the following years) and plenty of clean new glass in the storefronts.

I headed over to Cleveland Fresh and Organic, the bodega featured last year in the Wall Street Journal. It was busy, and the glass storefront, branded with the Cleveland Fresh logo, looked shiny and expensive. One employee said the renovations had been good, but otherwise, it was business as usual, with the same customers they’d always had. At J and H, a deli a few blocks down from Cleveland Fresh, the shop had a clear glass front, without an ad or drawing in sight. Juan, an employee who was coolly supervising the delivery of beer and soda, thought the renovations looked good, but said that the way a business looks ultimately has little to do with its success. It’s about the people, he told me, and that it was most important to have a friendly face behind the counter, someone who befriends regulars and doesn’t act like an irresponsible “knucklehead.”

Employees at these businesses didn’t seem passionate about their storefronts, one way or another. The businesses in Cypress Hills aren’t swamped with new customers happy to be able to see through the bodega window for once.

Yet the LISC guidelines state that “it is highly recommended for participants to declutter their storefronts and leave clear lines of sight between the business and the sidewalk to enhance attractiveness of storefront, as well as improve safety for the business, customers, and pedestrians. This includes removing posters, stickers, and merchandise that take up space in storefront windows at pedestrian eye-level.”

A bodega with more clear signage and glass windows.
Max Touhey | www.metouhey.com

These changes aren’t just about aesthetics; reducing crime is a key component of these renovations. Alligood at LISC and Backer at the SBS both name-checked Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) in our conversations. When I asked about the expertise deployed in the writing of the LISC guidelines, Alligood was eager to speak to the broader mission of LISC and its embrace of CPTED . The concept was first described by criminologist C. Ray Jeffery in the 1970’s and is, at its core, a philosophy that shares many of the assumptions of broken-windows policing, the idea that making neighborhoods look “nicer” deters crime.

In the documents guiding these revitalization efforts, LISC catalogues the ways in which it’s dedicated to principled investment in “historically underinvested” neighborhoods like East New York and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, making sure that the future of commercial corridors is equitable and inclusive.

But design choices, even those that may seem obvious or inconsequential, are accompanied by choices about values. What makes a storefront “dilapidated,” a shop window “cluttered,” or an awning “worn”? Those words, with their appeal to safety and security, law, order, and prosperity, function as moral justification for changing the look of entire retail corridors.

City agencies like the SBS and nonprofits like LISC don’t have institutional fealty to hand-lettered signs and kitschy advertisements. But the changes they want to see as neighborhoods undergo revitalization efforts, while well-intentioned, will also homogenize the character of neighborhoods so that they are less idiosyncratic, less foreign-looking, less like New York. What happens when bodegas all start to resemble each other—or as they all start to resemble 7-11s or Walgreens?

Whether changes at the local bodega are couched in the language of safety improvement, crime reduction, and architectural preservation—or whether they’re just the result of the enforcement of outdated city codes—the future of the bodega is clear. The distinctive and local is retreating, inexorably, toward the homogeneous and global. But it remains to be seen if customers prefer the new, glassy future to weird, old New York, and in the meantime, the design influences of any small business revitalization effort should be carefully considered.

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