At the height of the AOL chat-room era, when someone asked me “A/S/L,” my immediate reply was, “15/F/HARLEM.” Not “SoHa” or “Northern Manhattan,” but HARLEM. Where I’m from has culturally sculpted me in ways I could never explain. I have memories on every street corner, can conjure up five different transportation formulas to get you anywhere in the city (faster than Google Maps), and can recognize Seinfeld’s “Monk’s” diner as Tom’s restaurant in HARLEM. Being from The City produces a level of pride that I hold dear to my heart and most importantly a uniqueness I thought someone could not take away from me. Boy, was I wrong.
Welcome to New York 2017: The Ambush of Gentrification. I am now a Brooklyn resident (I know, I know, shame on me) and although it isn’t Manhattan, it’ll do. My fiancé and I made the transition when I realized I could no longer afford the rent in my old neighborhood in Harlem. It became very disheartening to watch my old bodegas and Chinese spots get ripped to shreds and replaced with sushi bars or vegan bakeries (eye-roll).
The one thing I can appreciate about my current Bed-Stuy neighborhood (and several others struggling to remain authentic) is that I can still walk to the bodega and pick up a loosey for my uncle or snag a bacon, egg, & cheese on my way to work without noticing a “We Seamless!” sign. Your local corner store is part of your community and a staple of New York culture. There is always a cat to keep the Mickeys away, potentially a bulletproof glass to keep the bad guys away, and all of your unperishable necessities (toilet tissue, condoms, snacks etc.) at your fingertips.
Gentrification has already offended me in more ways than one, but it didn’t start to make me tick until reading Yelp reviews complaining about “bodega cats” or watching a video on the INSIDER food of a bubbly white blonde describing Chopped Cheeses as a cheeseburger on a “sub roll;” a steal for $4. As a born and bred New Yorker it’s bad enough to witness my culture dissipating before my eyes, but to now see the multi-ethnic glory of the New York City bodega being poorly replicated on the West Coast by two Silicon Valley nerds, it’s too damn far.
There is a new app that has launched on the West Coast called “Bodega,” with, get this, a CAT as the logo of the app. It is supposed to replace a bodega with a smart pantry box in people’s apartment buildings, dorms, offices, etc. of unperishable items similar to those that you would purchase from a bodega. Now if this isn’t cultural appropriation at its most obnoxious I don’t know what is! New Yorkers are outraged! It has been renamed jokingly as a “Gentrification Box” and the wack app’s social media pages are already dismantled due to the outpouring of bad press and criticism.
New Yorkers get it. We were dangerous and gnarly at certain points in time. But what I dislike about gentrification specifically is it shouldn’t take a white person living in Harlem for Harlem to receive an upgrade. Now that we have received the updates to our neighborhoods that we rightfully deserved we aren’t considered good enough to partake. Homeowners of brownstones are being bribed to sell their properties and relocate. Renters are forced to either pay exceedingly high rents or move to the outskirts of the boroughs so that transplants and all eight of their roommates can be a few stops closer to their “WeWorks” spaces. I also understand that technology plays a much larger societal role in our lives than it ever has. However, one day the human race won’t be able to function very successfully being deprived of actual social interaction. We ‘Netflix and Chill’ instead of hanging out. We direct message and text; we don’t call. We don’t even talk on the phone to order food anymore. Even our grandmas are catching on to this “texting thing,” because if they thought they didn’t get phone calls in the '90s, then imagine getting one now. It intrigues me when I see toy telephones when shopping for my 9-month-old and I think, ‘Wow, will he even recognize this as a phone one day?’ Personally, I miss putting my finger in the rotary phone at my grandmother’s house. I miss paying the appropriate rent to live near a relatively sketchy ‘hood. I miss being a local. I miss New York accents and being ignored. I miss cabbies knowing how to get around without Google Maps or Waze.
As a New Yorker I know that I can speak on behalf of many in saying I will be mortified if “Bodega” makes its way to the East Coast. Everything does not have to be considered an inconvenience. It really won’t kill you to go to the corner store (not anymore anyway), and it won’t hurt you to walk a few more blocks instead of hopping in an Uber. Get to know your surroundings by forcing your face out of the palm of your hands. The backlash of Bodega actually makes me hopeful, because it proves a) literally how much more gentrification and cultural appropriation can one take, and b) this is an opportunity to rekindle that sense of community. For once, we are authenticating a culture that we won’t allow to be reproduced. Not to mention all of this bodega talk has me craving a “cheeseburger on a sub roll” and that is DEFINITELY something you cannot get from the Bodega in a Box. BRB - heading to #Ach’.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: Todd Boebel/Getty Images)