Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Deli gentrification
By Jerome Chou


Meet the new neighbors

If you want to track gentrification in New York City, look for tofu. Or basil. Or certain brands of canned tomatoes, dish detergent, and beer. In Bushwick, Crown Heights, Chinatown and many other neighborhoods across the city, delis and bodegas are being remade to suit the tastes of new residents. The coming and going of buildings and populations outside the store can be mapped on its shelves, where long-time staples are replaced by brands like Kashi, Seventh Generation, and Dancing Deer, and dozens of other brightly colored, little billboards of neighborhood change.

The store on the corner of Orchard and Canal Streets, where the angled grids of the Lower East Side and Fujianese Chinatown meet, is simply called Newsstand-Grocery. The owner, a woman in her late thirties named Lily, grew up in the neighborhood and still lives nearby. In the mid 2000s, she started noticing all of the young professionals and hipsters moving in near her apartment, and had a hunch that a store catering to them might do well. In 2006, she took over the lease on Canal Street, working twelve-hour days at her family’s restaurant in Bay Ridge, then staffing the deli until it closed at 2am. “It was really hard at first,” she says. “We made a lot of mistakes with our inventory. I was eating expired canned soup every day for weeks.”

“I did a lot of research. I spent a lot of time at the Whole Foods on 14th Street just walking the aisles. I was watching—not staring, but you know, you see what’s in people’s carts, you notice what people are buying. That’s when you realize: maybe I don’t know the market. My tastebuds are not yours, what you like might not be what I like.”

She installed a rack of art and design magazines: Domus, Artforum, Bidoun. She stocked the upscale products that her customers liked: Meyers cleaning products, Coco Water (“that’s something I would never drink,” she says), and a British brand of hand-cut chips called Tyrells, a “destination product” that people come from other neighborhoods to buy. There are some cheaper holdouts. Just to the right of the door is a slim rack of 25-cent bags of Wise potato chips that Lily keeps for people riding the two Chinatown bus lines that stop down the block.

As we talk, a middle-aged white man walks in, and without saying a word, Lily grabs a Philly blunt from a box behind her and places it on the counter. “Let me get two this time,” the man says. “Just got off work.” Lily estimates that her customer base is about 20% Asian, with the rest mostly white. “I have my Chinese customers, but I probably carry a different crowd than the other stores around here. They know if they come here they’re not going to bargain. They can tell me “your milk costs a dollar more than down the block” and I’ll say “You can take it or leave it.”

I ask Lily if she’s ever surprised to be selling gourmet popcorn in Chinatown. “I think that sometimes,” she says. “When I was growing up, this was a drug area. There were a lot of robberies. At night, my dad would pick up my mom at work and walk her home. No one wanted to come down here.”

A group of twenty-somethings come in. As I leave, Lily hands me a business card. Her brother has just opened a café on Mott and Broome called Nolita.

4 Responses to Deli gentrification

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Deli gentrification - Open City: Blogging Urban Change --

  2. NostrandPark says:

    Thank you for this article. We have a blog based in Crown Heights, and we actually spoke to one of the bodega owners who specifically told us that he was upgrading his previously dirty and dingy store “Because the neighborhood changed. Used to be hustlers and drug dealers. But now is different. When the neighborhood changes, we change.”

    However, the interesting thing about Crown Heights is that there are nuances here that you might not find in other neighborhoods. Here, the organic movement is not wholly driven by the influx of hipsters.

    Because of the large West Indian population, many of whom are Rastafarians who practice an “Ital” (healthy) lifestyle, there were many organic stores in this neighborhood before the wave of gentrification really started to take hold.

    In fact, the place that is considered the oldest vegan spot in Brooklyn – Imhotep – is on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights. It’s been around for at least a decade.

    You will also find quite a number of healthy juice places owned by Rastafarians and West Indians. Also, many of the immigrants who live here are used to eating the natural, fresh fruits that would grow in their own yards back home in the Caribbean. So the demand for natural food here is not foreign.

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere « Visualingual

  4. Pingback: Urban Omnibus » Open City: Blogging Urban Change – Jerome Chou

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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