Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata photographed every bodega in Manhattan from December of 2012 to August of 2013, and even in that short span she saw so many shutter that it became depressing to return for second shots. “These stores are important because they are the city,” she said in a talk last month presented by Atlas Obscura at ACME Studio in Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn-based artist from Omaha, Nebraska started Every Bodega in Manhattan, she explained, while teaching in a Lower East Side art education program. While commuting she stopped in different bodegas on different routes “on a quest for an Anthora cup.” Searching, on the whole futilely, for that iconic Greek amphora-inspired cup got her intrigued by the differences between each store and how they distinctly reflected neighborhoods with their wares. Nikon in hand, she used a paper street atlas to mark off each Manhattan block as she documented this vanishing and uniquely New York place.
Defining a bodega, she admitted, is difficult. Some argue it has to do with them being Hispanic-owned, others that it has to be a corner store that sells sandwiches, others that it’s basically a car-free gas station. Quagliata embraced it as any small all-purpose, non-chain shop where you can buy newspapers, snacks, cigarettes, and other sundries. Through a Tumblr and Google Map, she kept track of the around 1,900 that fit this category, and the hazards of so much walking on concrete, such as the torn ligament in her foot and repeated resoling of her boots.
Inspired by Ed Ruscha’s 1963 Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 1980 Water Towers, she gave each bodega a straightforward portrait, showing their differences not in their lighting or setting, but in their details. New York is one of those frenetic, crowded places where a razor focus like this can be a way to orient as well as capture something of the city’s spirit, such as Jason Polan drawing every person in New York, James Gulliver Hancock drawing every building in New York, or William B. Helmreich walking every block of New York.
In addition to knowing where the best, cheapest coffee could be consumed, she also found surprises like a tiny beach strewn with sea glass on Dyckman Street in Inwood, startling juxtapositions like surgical supplies sold alongside ice cream, and creative uses of space like one cramped next to an alley and another basically filling a hallway. “People in New York, they take a small space and turn it into something amazing,” she said. But what came up regularly when meeting bodega owners was the issue of rising rent, and more than once she saw a new 7-Eleven move in and soon the local store would be gone.
According to the Center for an Urban Future’s 2014 State of the Chains, 7-Eleven increased its New York locations from 59 in 2009 to 123 in 2013, and a 2012 New York Magazine article stated that by 2017 the company was aiming for over 100 on Manhattan alone. The company is far from the only reason that bodegas and other small businesses are closing around the five boroughs, with rent increases and gentrification rapidly altering the urban landscape. Quagliata’s project highlights the way these locally owned shops are unique reflections of the city in a way that a chain is not, and how bodegas, despite their ubiquity, are disappearing.
View Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata’s Every Bodega in Manhattan project on her site.