Artist Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata walked the whole borough to document each instance of this cultural institution.
When Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata was a student teacher at an art education program in the Lower East Side, she had a long walk from the subway station to school. To keep herself from becoming bored, she would explore a different route everyday. And everyday, she would go to a different bodega and try the coffee.
It was a simple routine, a daily hunt for the cheapest and best caffeine near school. But as the weeks passed, Quagliata began to take note of a distressing trend.
"I noticed the bodegas were just closing," she says. "In the semester that I was teaching there, probably four that I had gone to regularly closed." This didn't settle well with Quagliata. "I thought that was very unfortunate and kind of strange. So I thought, I should take pictures of these."
Thus began Quagliata's photographic exploration into the life and death of Manhattan's bodega culture. Starting in December 2012, she traversed the entirety of Manhattan, taking a picture of each and every bodega she encountered. In addition to her snapshots, she documented her progress on Google Maps and through an informal journal on Tumblr. She completed the project nine months later, in August 2013.
I caught up with Quagliata in advance of an Atlas Obscura talk she is giving in New York on Wednesday about the project. We chatted about her insights into the cultural significance of this very New York institution, how the project changed her view of cities, and the feedback she received from shop owners. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was your process like when you were photographing a bodega?
I tried to make it as conceptually rigid as I could, because for me, there's so many interesting things about bodegas. I really view them as sort of a microcosm, so I wanted to be as straightforward as possible. I looked at work by people like Ed Ruscha, who did the 26 gasoline stations, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, who did the water tower series, where it was a straight shot from a similar angle during a similar time of day. So I tried to control every variable I could and just take the same photograph of different bodegas.
Why bodegas? What do they represent to you?
When I first moved to New York City in 2003, the bodega was something new to me. I'd come from Chicago and there are convenience stores, but they're typically corporate convenience stores. So I had my local 7/11 or whatever, but the bodega was a new thing to me. It just sort of represented everything about New York: it was open all the time, it had all these random smatterings of different things. I just got fascinated.
And people are so protective of them! I remember when I first moved to the Upper East Side and having a friend tell me, "No, no, don't go to that bodega. Go to my bodega." You don't own the bodega, but people [say], "That's where I get my coffee, and they have a good sandwich, the guy knows me." I just thought that was so interesting that this is how people establish their place in this chaotic city.
The bodegas, even though we all pick one that we're attached to for whatever reason, are sort of similar in the sense that they all offer the same basic things. The gist is the same. Did you get an appreciation for the finer details, like what made each one different?
Yes, absolutely. For me, something that was so fascinating was getting to different neighborhoods in the city and finding that there would be bodegas that were closed for prayer and there would be bodegas that offered homemade arepas. All these different cultures were represented. In between the million Arizona Iced Tea signs, there's sometimes a homemade sign that advertises something incredibly unique and surprising.
I took a picture of a bodega on Madison Avenue that had a giant sign in the window that said, "Yes! We have caviar!" I was like, what? That's the weirdest. Who goes to a bodega looking for caviar? Well, I guess people did and there it is.
Out of all the bodegas you saw and out of all the photos you took, did you have any photo or any bodega that was your favorite?
I took a photograph of a bodega in Harlem. I think it's called "Harlem Up" and I just really liked their sign. So that was kind of special to me.
But in terms of a bodega that I really connected with, there was one on 9th Street and 1st Avenue where I was taking photographs and the owner came out and started up a conversation with me. I've had people shoo me away from their store or ask me why I was taking photographs and tell me I couldn't take photographs, but this guy just came out and was interested in my project. He sat down with me, gave me a cup of coffee. I got to meet his mom! That was really nice. That really stuck out for me.
Did you receive any other feedback from shop owners?
I definitely had people ask me to stop taking pictures. Being someone who is a street photographer, I feel pretty well-versed in what my rights are in terms of what I can and can't photograph. I didn't want it to be an acrimonious thing. You know, I'm just standing there taking a picture, but some people felt really violated by that, so I did have a lot of "go away."
In certain neighborhoods, I would have people ask me what I was doing. Someone asked me if I was a police officer and I don't look like a police officer. But yeah, there was a few people who would come out and chat with me. People talked to me about how, yes, rents are going up and it is making things harder. Corporations have the money to buy up rents that maybe a local business wouldn't be able to. I felt really grateful that some people took the time to speak with me.
Now that the project is all over, has this colored how you see Manhattan, New York, or cities in general?
I think it's easy to develop a nostalgia for anything, but for me, it was such a big feature—the bodega—when I moved here, then to see them disappearing and to see them replaced by things that, in my opinion, aren't New York-specific. I feel like people come to New York to see New York. If the city turns into the same 7/11 you have at home and the same strip mall that you have at home, then what's the point? It ceases to be a vibrant and unique city. I feel like something is lost.