The inside of a store is the stuff of fantasy these days, with non-essential businesses shuttered, and luxury shops boarded up to fend off imaginary looters. The city’s corner stores, meanwhile, continue to provide the basics. We’ve looked before at the many roles bodegas play in the city’s social life, even as its retail landscape changes dramatically. Here, we take a look back to storefronts past, which provided not just coffee and canned goods but connections to home and space for community organizing in New York City’s immigrant enclaves. Historian Pedro Regalado introduces us to Justo Martí, a photographer who documented the everyday life of Latinx communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and to a selection of his images of bodegas and bodegueros from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The essay comes to us thanks to our friends at Platform, a new publication connecting the history of the built environment to contemporary spaces and culture. Providing a rare glimpse at the history of the spaces and signs cementing Latinx life in the city, this portfolio highlights the continuing work of New Yorkers to make the city home.
In 1926, Justo Martí accompanied a woman and her children from Manhattan to Brooklyn as a favor for a friend. I don’t know if they took the subway or drove a car, but most likely they moved through the city by train. The Cuban photographer had arrived in New York City by steamship just one year prior and was still becoming familiar with the immense metropolis and its bustling boroughs. After dropping the family off at their home near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Martí was moved by what he witnessed as he wandered about. “I was so happy to pass through Brooklyn,” he said, “to see the bodegas along Atlantic Avenue, bananas hanging on the windows. And it was summer, so you would see more of them than if it were winter. I wanted to return.” Martí visited the borough the following day. He boarded an IRT train car jostling its way down Manhattan, across the East River, and into Brooklyn where he transferred to a streetcar at Borough Hall. As the car traversed Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Martí sat back and enjoyed the sights of “Puerto Ricans, Spaniards,” and their businesses, small shops and grand theaters alike.
Martí eventually settled down in Brooklyn for good during the late 1930s or early 1940s. He opened a camera supply store in Prospect Heights — not far from where the streetcar had passed on his first visit — which he operated alongside his wife Olga. The couple’s storefront became part of Martí’s decades-long career as a professional photographer for English and Spanish-language newspapers that included The Brooklyn Citizen, La Prensa, El Comercio, and others. Martí’s work took him across the wide expanse of New York City, where he encountered well-known musical artists, such as Dámaso Pérez Prado and Celia Cruz, and prominent political figures, including Dwight Eisenhower and Fidel Castro. It also enabled him to record the richness of Latinx everyday life, capturing the prideful gazes of Honduran soccer champions in sports arenas that no longer exist, Ecuadorian beauty pageants in the community halls of rapidly changing neighborhoods, and the storefronts where Latinx New Yorkers sowed belonging in the city while reinforcing bonds to the countries that they were compelled to leave behind.
Today, Martí’s remarkable photographs are part of the “Justo A. Martí Photographic Collection, 1948-1985” at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The ones presented here (roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s) showcase bodegas, small, one-room, retail stores that offer New Yorkers a plethora of items necessary or desired for everyday life. Many of these spaces have gained notoriety in contemporary New York City as relics of a pre-gentrified yesteryear. Yet, Martí’s images hint at their much longer history. Based on personal memoirs and oral histories of the pioneer generation of Puerto Ricans who arrived in the city during the 1920s, as well as newspaper advertisements in the city’s Spanish-language press from that period, we know that many of the earliest Latinx-owned bodegas were established in the increasingly dense Puerto Rican enclaves of East Harlem, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Red Hook.
Back then, bodegas were cornerstones of burgeoning commercial landscapes that instilled early Latinx enclaves with character, enabling neighborhood residents to carve place from space. For a moment, they transported customers to their countries of origin; at one bodega featured above, the words “Sandoval Food Center” sit in between decorative depictions of a palm tree and El Morro, the 16th-century fort that remains an important monument in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. That many shops also promoted “Puerto Rican coffee” — among other familiar products — was a welcome sight, and smell, for patrons. Moreover, bodegas became hubs of community organizing wherein businesspeople addressed the complaints of their fellow shop owners. Indeed, some of the subjects presented here belonged to the Puerto Rican Merchants Association (PRMA). Martí himself was also a member. The association, founded in 1946, organized and empowered small-business owners to resist diverse forms of racial discrimination, including corrupt police searches and slum clearance urban renewal projects, which often displaced their establishments with impunity (and without their input) during the 1950s.
More than precious artifacts of New York City’s past, Justo Martí’s photographs of bodegas offer a sharp counterpoint to images of ruined landscapes that dominated representations of the city’s Latinx neighborhoods during the second half of the 20th century. They provide granular insight into what products were sold, reveal who stood behind counters, and exhibit the imaginative names and designs intended to evoke a past, far away home. Martí’s photographs serve as a reminder that the rich history of Latinx New Yorkers and their claims to space is embedded in the landscape of the city.
All photos by Justo A. Martí, courtesy of Justo A. Martí Photographic Collection, 1948-1985, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Library & Archives (Centro) at Hunter College, CUNY.