Maggie Deagon is a junior double majoring in Spanish and Social Sciences with a minor in Korean Studies. When she is not studying, she is either mentoring middle school girls with WYSE, working at Kaya Press and Dr. Lyon’s Child Interviewing Lab, or fueling her passion for other cultures in her favorite way–eating new foods
In Brooklyn, New York, on the corner of Wyckoff Street and Jefferson Avenue sits a cracked building with a bright awning made of stretched nylon. Etched across its front is a store name—a religious allusion. The only other markers to invite a passerby are cigarette and candy advertisements on the store windows, but such attention-grabbers are unnecessary when considering the regular crowd of customers that frequents the store. Inside lies the potential to satisfy any basic need—toilet paper, processed foods, and cleaning products galore. Toward the front, a Middle Eastern man waits behind a counter, displaying a variety of meats and cheeses for assembling sandwiches according to the customers’ desires. With affordable prices and neighborhood accessibility, these stores are integral to the lives of those who reside in their vicinity. They are the urban delis of America, and their history carries the stories of immigrants’ economic integration. A century ago, a new employee from Poland took the position that the Middle Eastern man now hopes will propel him into American life. The urban deli is a symbol of American immigrants’ journeys into a new culture, and this defining connection to race has characterized the operations inside. Despite their benefits for certain segments of immigrant populations, these institutions of economic integration simultaneously disenfranchise the communities in which they thrive. Their success hinges on their affordability and accessibility, yet their customers suffer because of what they perpetuate—hope for those running them, but dwindling opportunity for the surrounding community.
Delis were originally established and continue to operate as vehicles for immigrants’ enfranchisement. Although rising food prices have decreased the practicality of selling the foods originally available in delis, new immigrants have adapted products to continue to serve their surrounding communities (Fishbein). Meat counters and some fresh food items may be made available, but the focus has shifted from ethnic foods like matzo balls and cured meats to basic necessities that are available in bulk at larger supermarkets. Despite this move away from ethnic eccentricities amid mixed American culture, ethnicity remains vital to the delis’ success. Previous deli owners readily welcome others in their ethnic communities to their business and provide them with assistance as they transition into a new economy (Howe 14). These connections within ethnic communities maintain immigrants’ places in delis. Arab-Americans have a rapidly growing presence in convenience stores despite the impressive number of Koreans who have maintained their ownership in the past decades (Howe 6). This may indicate that although methods are in place to maintain Korean positions in delis, they are not averse to the idea of allowing other immigrants into their business. Adjustments have been made to delis’ products as the racial identities of their owners have changed, indicating economic mobility in their communities, yet the socioeconomic status of their customers—those in the surrounding communities—does not necessarily reflect this mobility.
While providing for themselves and those familiar to them, deli owners also cater to their neighborhoods, offering a variety of necessities at affordable prices, but a subtler cost remains—lack of quality. Latino-owned bodegas have become an especially inexpensive option in urban areas. The name comes from the Spanish word for “grocery store,” although the contents of a bodega are typically less vast than those advertised in common supermarket chains. They are run by down-on-their-luck immigrants looking to enfranchise themselves, and many of those they service experience the same financial difficulty (Lisette). New York City natives Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam created a YouTube video to demonstrate the food necessities that bodegas can satisfy. At the video’s end, they show off their purchases of sodas, chips, and desserts, boasting that their three-course meals cost little more than a dollar. Penn states throughout the video that they are demonstrating “how to survive” with available low-cost foods from bodegas. At one point, Kam inquires about the availability of a market like Whole Foods in their area. Laughing, Penn brings him back to reality with a resolute response, “This is the Bronx, Rafi” (CasimirN). Whole Foods and other high quality market chains do not typically appear in low-income areas, as their items are too expensive; they would not be profitable in such neighborhoods. Since no alternative food source exists for residents, they must accept delis’ offerings with low nutritional value. Thus, delis’ low cost is not the only reason for their popularity; often, they are simply the only option.
A food desert is an area that lacks access to affordable produce—fruits and vegetables—and other foods that are necessary to maintain a healthy diet. While the concept of a food desert is relatively new to developed countries such as the United States, they do exist. In some cases, limited access to healthy foods can have lasting negative effects on communities even when better options are presented; the habit of unhealthy consumption becomes difficult to break (“A Look Inside Food Deserts”). Despite lack of research on food deserts overall in the United States, they are unexpectedly present in urban areas (“Food Environment Atlas”). Because of delis’ prevalence in such spaces, this fact brings about questions regarding delis’ contribution to the eating choices—however limited the options—of individuals in urban areas. Although food deserts are understandably pervasive in rural areas, their frequency in cities is of particular concern, as urban access implies greater diversity of food choice. However, because of delis’ and bodegas’ affordability, they consistently outcompete healthier options that attempt to populate urban spaces. Residents do not have the means to pursue alternative food choices, and as a result, deli employers essentially monopolize the food industry in urban locations. This results in benefits for the immigrants who control delis and bodegas, while their customers—most of whom belong to minorities—remain limited by the few options their neighborhoods provide.
While delis negatively impact their communities in some ways, certain conflicts remain in these spaces that adversely influence their owners and employees, as well. Despite immigrant deli owners’ general economic success, violence is common in these urban environments. In a WashingtonD.C. deli in 2012, June Lim, the owner, was shot during an aggravated robbery by Steven Vondell Williams, an African-American from the surrounding neighborhood. In response to this tragedy, Lim’s son expressed great concern over his father’s financial well-being, as his mother was the family’s sole provider (Barnard). Although the interracial aspect of this occurrence is not explicitly addressed, one article does mention that the murder took place in a “predominantly African-American neighborhood.” In the same sentence, the article reveals that the area has seen a decline in violent crime in recent years, yet no direct connection to race is suggested (Dumain). In underserved areas, delis act as some of the sole sites of commerce, and as a result, they are more attractive targets for crime. Additionally, immigrants’ adjustment to a new American way of life makes them more vulnerable to abuse. While attacks on delis may not be explicitly motivated by racism, they outline problematic relationships among these areas’ diverse neighbors. Crimes take place in settings that bridge racial lines in so many ways, yet they highlight the tension that persists between different minority groups as both struggle to attain economic success.
Deli owners’ and employees’ responses to violence leads to greater racial conflict in the form of profiling. In March of 2013, Forest Whitaker, a prolific African-American actor, was frisked in a Manhattan deli after an employee accused him of shoplifting (Coates). While this story likely only received media coverage due to the fame of the accused, it reveals the racial tensions that pervade delis in many urban areas. In response to high crime rates within their businesses, deli owners and employees utilize stereotypes to monitor customers, guarding against robberies or worse. In Philadelphia, the owner of a deli shot and killed a 19-year-old intruder who had drawn his gun (Damm). Deli owners go to great lengths to protect themselves and their livelihood, but the structures of this action have seldom been analyzed in terms of interracial conflict. Immigrants may recognize their vulnerable position as foreigners and feel acting defensively even prior to crime is necessary to ensure their safety. Additionally, they may be influenced by American society’s criminalization of African Americans through their disproportionately high arrest and imprisonment rates and become fearful (Davis). However, these trends cannot be exclusively attributed to one’s race. In some cases, racial profiling may be perceived as a good method for preventing crime, but it also cements stereotypes in the minds of deli owners—new immigrants in particular—and will enter mainstream society. The community members who are assumed to be the problem remain stagnant—their movement hindered by persistent social structures.
Deli owners act out of self-interest in efforts to guard against crime and ensure consistent profits, but faulting owners for focusing on their personal success is not a solution. However, there are changes that could be made to delis’ operations in order to broaden the improvement of their communities without detracting from their owners’ benefits. In recent years, there have been initiatives in urban areas like Chicago and New York to improve the quality of foods that are offered in bodegas. These projects seek to present healthier food options in affordable settings to prompt change in eating habits. Additionally, these programs ensure that deli owners are compensated for placing fresh fruits and vegetables on their shelves, so in the event that customers are not receptive to the new items, deli owners do not suffer losses (Johnson). Still, owners are hesitant to accept change. Most who have worked with the programs express doubt about their effectiveness, insisting that their customers are only interested in purchasing foods that are high in sugar (Bansal). This assumption could reflect stereotyping, however, and not be an observation of customers’ behavior; indeed, until these initiatives, delis offered little other than high-sugar foods. Regardless, the formation of initiatives that seek to increase access to healthy foods in delis and bodegas stimulates greater conversation about the multi-dimensional impacts of these urban spaces. At the least, they create a dialogue regarding their paradoxical effects on minority communities.
Delis provide complex settings in which varying levels of success relative to race can be evaluated. More often, they are taken for granted as common spaces of convenience, only necessitating exploration when in want of a quick snack or lottery ticket. For many members of urban communities, however, delis are essential to carrying out everyday operations. Their shortcomings, while numerous, are still overpowered by their status as permanent staples of urban areas. Delis boast a history of immigrant success that cannot be taken into account without also considering the immobility that their neighbors continue to endure, yet this disenfranchisement is not unalterable. The progress that delis can foster must also be extended to those in the community who depend on their products. Once their importance to these communities is realized, steps can be taken to utilize them to bring about positive change that uplifts all minority groups in their vicinity. Without hindering immigrants’ economic assimilation, the customers they serve might also propel themselves into better lifestyles, realizing—although perhaps belatedly—what deli owners already know to be the American dream.
“A Look Inside Food Deserts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. USA.gov. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Bansal, Sarika. “The Healthy Bodegas Initiative: Bringing Good Food to the Desert.” The Atlantic. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.
Barnard, Bob. “Arrest made in murder of D.C. deli owner June Lim.” MyFoxDC. Fox News. 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
CasimirN. “Bodega.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Jan. 2007. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Good, Racist People.” The New York Times Opinion Page. The New York Times. 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Damm, Stan. “Tacony Deli Owner Shoots, Kills Would-Be Robber.” NBC 10 Philadelphia. 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Davis, Angela. “Race and Criminalization.” The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. Print.
Dumain, Emma. “Neighbors Mourn Slain Deli Owner.” Roll Call. 2012 Jun. 18. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Fishbein, Rebecca. “Are All the Jewish Delis in the City Dying Out?” Gothamist. 23 Feb. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
“Food Environment Atlas.” USDA Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Howe, Ben Ryder. My Korean Deli. New York: Picador, 2010. Print.
Johnson, Victoria. “Healthy Bodegas Program Brings Fresh Produce to Humboldt Park ‘Food Desert.’” DNAinfo.com Chicago. 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.
Lisette. “Bow down to your bodega.” Broke in NYC. WordPress. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.