If You Build It, Will They Come?

If You Build It, Will They Come?

It’s not uncommon for withering brown bananas to lay limp on the counter of my local bodega; or for the often-sticky floors to claim the soles of my shoes; or for the shelves to hold a product hostage long past its shelf life.

But the final straw was when I opened the cold case to grab a drink, and was met by a cat that casually strolled out of the fridge.

I am not from Bedford-Stuyvesant. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Oakland. I have traveled to many corners of the world, and I am a two-time offender at an Ivy League.

But one of the things that attracted me to this area was its embracing community and vivacious culture. I love its history, which is as unique as it is familiar to most African-Americans like myself. I love Bed-Stuy’s soulfulness and homegrown feel.

I’d like to call myself a “straddler,” not a gentrifier, as 80 percent of what is Bed-Stuy I would not want to change; I just want to see some things get better. But is better really “better,” if only a handful want it, and, more importantly, if even fewer can actually access it financially?

Case-in-point: Only a few weeks following the cat-in-the-fridge incident, Cinnamon Girl arrived. Cinnamon girl is a vegan deli, the quintessence of sparkling tidiness, housing soymilk, organic fruit, fresh baked bread and vegan desserts.

I couldn’t help but think that this was precisely what the neighborhood needed.

According to the Brooklyn District Public Health Offices (DPHO), Bed-Stuy is a “high-need” neighborhood with great health inequalities. High rates of obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol plague many residents, and access to healthy food has been an ongoing concern.

Bodegas make up eight of 10 food stores in Bed-Stuy; one in three sells reduced fat milk; one in 10 sells leafy green vegetables, and only 28 percent carry fresh fruit.

But even before Cinnamon Girl’s arrival and deli’s like it, there was the Healthy Bodega Initiative that aimed to bring nutritional food into bodegas. “We’re trying to get [our store] to be healthy, stock things with less salt, less sugar, and carry organic stuff,” said David Ali of L&H market on Lewis Avenue.

Ali is a participant in the initiative, but admits that there hasn’t been a high demand for healthier food, because his customers have not gotten used to eating healthy.

After 10 years in the neighborhood, Ali observed that it was the new people in the community asking for healthier products, and not its native residents. “I already know what my old customers want– the sugary, salty, fatty stuff,” he said chuckling with affection for his customers. “Now I need a list of what the new customers want.”

And while Cinnamon Girl caters to the health-conscious consumer, for those who may decide to try something new in healthier food alternatives, does its price point still marginalize the less affluent?

While they offer great coffee for only $1, most people in the neighborhood aren’t accustomed to paying 75 cents for a lemon or $2.50 for a grapefruit, even if it is organic.

With the addition of places like Cinnamon Girl, the neighborhood gets the much-deserved fresh food it needs, and for this I am grateful. But there is something awkward still… I think that it’s because I know that the arrival of new-fangled delis is not a direct response to the health inequalities in the neighborhood, nor is it due to a high demand. Instead, it is a response to the wants and desires of “first-stage gentrifiers.”

However, Cinnamon Girl co-owner Siri Larsen said she keeps her ears open to what people ask for.

“I want to bring something good and nutritious at a fair price,” she said. “I want to bring people stuff they might not have expected, but we don’t want to shove it down their throats.”

During my visit, a teenager, who grew up in the neighborhood, purchased and delighted in a slice of vegan chocolate cheesecake after having a sample a few days earlier.

So, maybe if you build it, they will come. Maybe… eventually.

This article originally appeared on Bed-Stuy Patch as part of the column Change for a Dollar: Gentrification.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.