Bodega Storefronts and the Iconography of the Post-Pandemic City
Prior to the pandemic, New York City’s Department of Small Business Services had been helping local stores and bodegas to simplify signage and make their storefronts less cluttered. But with the pandemic came the need to inform people about masking, distancing, and the number of customers legally allowed inside stores. This led to small, often handmade, signs being placed at store entrances.
With the vaccine and the lingering, long-term issues around COVID-19, such as mental health, school attendance, and Alzheimer’s, along with pockets of resistance to vaccinations, the NYC Health Department has recently created a series of public service posters informing and motivating communities about post pandemic issues. These signs appear in or on the windows of many convenience stores, delis, mini-markets and bodegas. The decluttering of bodega windows, it appears, will have to wait.
I was curious to know why bodegas allocate this valuable space to PSA posters. Were store owners acting against their own economic interests, or even doing it for altruistic reasons? I looked for these public-service posters in supermarkets, barber shops, fast-food franchises, and other types of businesses, but found none. (This is part of my pandemic diary, done in collaboration with Elihu Rubin, associate professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. It continues to this day and includes other cities. The entire collection can be seen at the Library of Congress website.)
I asked people if they knew why there were so many city-sponsored posters, and why they were just in small stores. There were a few theories: Some told me that the signs are for the community, others said that the city pays the bodegas to display them. These are busy stores. They rarely answer the phone, and when I go in person, after getting to the front of the line, I only have a few seconds to ask questions. I am not even sure that the person at the counter understands me. When I finally got hold of Manuel, owner of Manuel’s grocery in Washington Heights, he told me that he was paid $25 to $50 for posting the signs on his storefront. The fee covers the use of the space until a set of new posters arrives. Manuel said he didn’t know why these public-service announcements appear mainly in bodegas.
In addition to advertising the products they sold before the pandemic, some bodegas have traditionally allocated window space at no cost to portraits and other memorials to deceased members of the community. These announcements, often labeled “A Celebration of Life,” provide information to the neighborhood about funeral arrangements, and often remain for months, until replaced by a more recent death notice. A Dominican bodega worker explained to me that Michael Harris’ portrait on the store window was a show of respect to his customers. “People knew and liked him around here,” he said.
Jose, a Harlem bodeguero, explained that the portrait of a young man taken at night and posted at his Harlem deli was “somebody that was killed, somebody that lived around here.” There are no “Celebration of Life” posters in the windows of McDonald’s, Subway, or KFC franchises; these chains are less connected to the communities where they do business and the lives of the local residents.
Few material signs of the pandemic will be permanent. I picture mountains of discarded folding tables, chairs and tents, as so much city life was moved outside. Thousands of video screens in retrofitted buses, at bus stops and in subway stations, will join billions of disintegrating masks, vinyl gloves and disinfectant dispensers in the nation’s dumps and junkyards or, worse, polluting the seas.
Among the materials defining the evolution of the pandemic will be these new, upbeat “Post COVID” posters addressing NYC residents as “Hey, Brooklyn!” Or portraying vaccinated children as superheroes “because superheroes protect others,” or encouraging adults to contact “Project Hope” and speak to counselors who “understand what you are going through,” along with injunctions to take such measures “for Our Health and Our Community.” These posters signal the need to deal with the aftereffects of the pandemic, as well as our collective desire, itself a form of denial, to move on, new variants be damned.
Featured image: NYC Health Department announcements about the vaccine and other health issues, Fulton Street at Van Siclen Avenue, Brooklyn, September 25, 2021. All photos by the author.