The bodega - known outside of New York City as the corner store - is a lifeline for people living in cities where despite being packed into homes like sardines, simple amenities can often be surprisingly hard to come by. The bodega is also a community center, a second home to visit for conversation, family, culture and comfort.
However, a new app by two former Google employees, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, called "Bodega" aims to disrupt the corner store business by installing over 50 "five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store." So basically, a vending machine, though purchase of small goods through a glass panel is made through an app and not pocket change. It also uses artificial intelligence to "preempt what people might need" by studying user habits and "constantly reassess[ing] the 100 most-needed items in that community." Investors in the new technology include senior executives from Silicon Valley heavyweights like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Google.
After a Fast Company profile on the startup came out today, Twitter sharpened its proverbial pitchforks and quickly went about skewering the founders for trying to disrupt the bodega industry and its beloved cats.
You get the idea.
Though there are many aspects of our lives which have been and continue to be irrefutably improved by technology - ordering delivery online rather than over the phone comes to mind - the bodega is one thing that did not require further improvement or, God help us, disruption. As Madison Malone Kircher writes over at Select All, "[The bodega] has been, for all intents and purposes, perfected. So somebody please tell Silicon Valley to stay the hell away."
Artist Amaris Castillo practically grew up in and around bodegas. Her parents, both immigrants from the Dominican Republic, have worked in or ran bodegas for as long as she can remember. She created the photojournalism project "Bodega Stories" to show the intimacy of the community that bodegas foster, which to her are irreplaceable.
"I feel like the guys behind this completely missed the point," she told PAPER. "They don't understand the importance of bodegas. It's angering, it's maddening, it's frustrating, but I'm so happy to see how much support bodegas have gotten today. It even became a Twitter moment."
Castillo got choked up talking about her father, a "bodeguero" (or bodega owner) who now runs a store in St. Petersburg, Florida with her mother. The store is currently experiencing a power outage related to Hurricane Irma, but Castillo was able to get ahold of her father, translating from Spanish his thoughts on the subject:
"Perhaps these two men have not had to sacrifice as I and so many have," Castillo's father said. "I've been working in bodegas for over 30 years to push my family forward. I don't agree that these men are trying to overshadow the sacrifices that all bodegueros have made -- for a profit."
The loss of human-held jobs at the machinated hands of technology is as old as capitalism, but the particular tone-deafness of replacing one of the few community-oriented spaces left in major cities is particularly striking, and a large part in why the online outcry against the app-run vending machines was so loud. McDonald and Rajan said they did some outreach before launching the product - which are less mini-corner stores and more just, vending machines - and said that 97% of the Latin American community they surveyed said the name "Bodega" was not a "misappropriation of that term" nor did it have "negative connotations."
On the contrary, the term bodega is highly positive, bringing to mind, as Castillo pointed out, "The banter between the owner and the customers, the laughter, the chatter, the grittiness, the fact that you can get pastelitos or empanadas or breakfast sandwiches 24 hours." She added, "I know that gentrification is happening. But it's frustrating."
As long as the march of capitalism and the evolution of technology move forward, there will always be people looking to profit off the disruption - and end of - another industry. The startup plans to have 1,000 "Bodega" locations across the country by 2018, telling Fast Company, "Eventually, centralized shopping locations won't be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you."
As long as we have the ability to make our purchasing decisions for ourselves, however, community spaces can and will remain an integral part of daily life.
Splash image of Castillo's parents, courtesy of the artist