Get to know your bodegas.

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To my mild surprise, I am a full-fledged fired-up believer in what some folks call derisively the “nanny state.”  With this admission, I understand I’m taking the risk of plunging this blog into what-ticks-me-off territory way too soon… that sort of stuff is no fun to read day in and day out. So I beg your indulgence as I introduce a running theme, which I will try to do without being disagreeable.

I call it Get to Know Your Bodegas.

If you walk two blocks in either direction from Eastern Parkway, you will pass no less than four or five bare-bones candy/beer/soda/cigarette shops; there are nine altogether within the four blocks from President Street to St. John’s Place.  (You can see a map of them here.)

The shelves stocked with dusty non-perishables of indeterminate age—if they have them—are besides the point. Their commerce is measured in single-serve transactions of three dollars or less. Leaving aside cigarettes—it’s still illegal to sell them as singles—the short list of bodega staples fires up all the Michael-Pollan nanny-statist flashpoints:

As businesses, they are basic, subsistence-level loose-change commerce for both the vendor and the consumer, and they are the dominant mode of commercial activity along Franklin Avenue near the Parkway. It’s not difficult to imagine some adverse impacts. Each of these vices can be a drag on personal and community health; some—think beer in a paper bag—generate a more immediate and visceral effect on the crowds at the corners.

To be fair, the negative-impact theory of the bodegas is not incompatible with the understanding that behind each store is a responsible, hardworking small businessman catering to the profiles and desires of his consumers.

But if you choose to embrace that theory, there are two kinds of policy responses. One is to restrict commerce. Parts of the District of Columbia, for example, have a ban on the sale of single beers. The policy might work well but for the ability of the neighborhood commissions (think community boards) to grant an exception so yuppies can continue to purchase large-format bottles of Belgian trappist ale from Whole Foods. I enjoy Belgian beer, but this sort of double standard seems untenable for the businessman and the customer alike, a recipe for resentment and mistrust. I am curious if anyone thinks differently.

The other sort of response is to encourage a different kind of commerce, pushing bodegas to stock more healthy products. NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene runs a program they call the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, encouraging shops to carry 1 percent milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, and healthy snacks. The program targets three areas, one of which is a swath of central Brooklyn encompassing Bed-Stuy and Bushwick. This approach could have more promise (call it using the carrot instead of the stick). According to a DOHMH report, the initial (self-reported) results are positive.

Still, my gut reaction is that access to food isn’t the issue here. There are stores that carry real food within our two-block radius: south of the Parkway, a Pioneer supermarket and Yoon’s Market fruit stand; to the north is Fisher’s Supermarket. Each offers fresh produce and variety, and each does a decent business. The aspirational shopper can leave our zone and cross St. John’s Place to the north, where Nam’s Grocery and its sister-store Pine Tree sell all the Greek yogurt and kombucha tea they can stock (at Park Slope price points).

Please contribute your experience with these stores.  I will be annotating the bodega map with information as I fill it in, haphazardly, over the coming months and try to develop and tell this story.

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