Earning a Spot in the Neighborhood

As a Crown Heights newcomer, Kristen Radtke looks at what it means to be a bodega regular and how we convince ourselves to live in NYC

By Kristen Radtke

Presenting the sixth installment of The Bodega Project, where authors from across New York reflect on their community through that most relied-on and overlooked institution, the bodega. Read the introduction to the series here.

The last time my father visited me in New York from his home in rural Wisconsin, I told him we should run down to the bodega for an extra bag of tortilla chips. “What’s a bodega?” he responded. I knew he wouldn’t know the word, which is why I used it. I still felt such a need to try to claim New York, to assert to others my place in it.

I’d moved to Crown Heights — the edge of Crown Heights, a few blocks from where Atlantic marks the beginning of Bed Stuy — a few months earlier, and no one in the bodega knew me yet. They still don’t — haven’t come to anticipate what I’m there for the way they do with so many regulars, as the proprietor of my old bodega in Flatbush had, knowing that I’d come for a fudge pop if I was in pajamas and it was after 9 p.m. I sometimes feel eyed with suspicion when entering an unfamiliar bodega, particularly in a neighborhood like mine that doesn’t get a lot of through traffic from people who don’t live nearby. I like this, the fact that you have to earn your spot — it’s one of the ways we convince ourselves to live in New York, in spite of how hard we always say it is, with no plans to actually leave. If we leave, we tell ourselves, we’ll lose something irreclaimable, or at the least impossible to replicate. “So, like, Crown Heights, but not really. The far part,” I find myself saying when acquaintances respond to where-do-you-live questions with proclamations of how much they love Mayfields or Bunsmith or Crown Inn, or any of the other lovely establishments that run down Franklin Avenue through Crown Heights’ most well-groomed blocks. “I live in the crappy part,” I say about the place I actually love.

Bodegas represent so much a neighborhood’s mood and energy, the way the shelves are frantically picked over before a storm that’s prophesied in the news but often never materializes, or the winter that everyone in the city seemed to be standing in blocks-long lines to buy Powerball tickets. They also become beacons of safety, sometimes the only place open and brightly lit late at night, and makeshift meeting places in a city with such limited community space. It’s a mark of belonging to know not only the kinds of Sour Patch Kids a bodega stocks, but also the proprietor’s name, and the names of his kids. Or, as one friend put it when I moved, “you don’t know them yet, but that place is going to see you through some shit.”

About the Author

Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon, 2017). She is the managing editor of Sarabande Books and the film & video editor of TriQuarterly magazine. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She lives and works in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

The Bodega Project – Electric Literature

— The Bodega Project is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

About the Author

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