As part of our job at Public Health Solutions, Caitlin and I have the chance to travel around the five boroughs of New York City. This way, we get to know the most different and picturesque neighborhoods, from Chinese/Korean Flushing to South American Corona, from Polish Ridgewood to Russian Coney Island, and from Orthodox Jewish Borough Park to the beautifully mixed and mainly unknown Two Bridges.
For our Bodega Report Project – a research project with the aim of writing recommendations on ways to involve store owners in the efforts to increase access to healthy food in the city- Caitlin and I read and spoke a lot about so-called “food deserts.” Food deserts are areas where the population has scarce access to fresh and healthy food. Sometimes, especially in scattered or rural areas, the phenomenon is a consequence of large distances and scarce transportation. Frequently in urban settings, there is simply less interest in investing in the area. Not surprisingly, those areas are usually inhabited mainly by low income populations.
When Caitlin and I first went to Two Bridges – so called because it developed between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges – we understood very quickly that we were in an exemplary food desert! There were public housing projects as far as we could see, identical buildings for blocks and blocks. And for blocks and blocks, no stores. Since we were there to carry on a research project on corner stores, we started wondering if we would ever be able to survey one. Further on in the project, we were told that that neighborhood was for decades one of the most diverse in the city: poverty and diversity had come together with a great deal of conflict and violence. It is only recently that the neighborhood has become more quiet, but its history can still be breathed by walking its blocks or by accidentally reading a headline about a murder in the middle of the street.
What had brought us there was the fact that the only one-stop option for food shopping – a huge Pathmark that had opened in the 90′s as a result of community advocacy efforts- was then about to close, leaving the inhabitants who were used to it disoriented and worried. With gentrification approaching the area slowly but surely (anybody who saw the view of the East River and of Brooklyn between the two bridges would have bet on it), the big supermarket would have very soon been replaced by a huge tower of luxury apartments. A local organization, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, then expressed the intention of collaborating with us to have a picture of food access in the neighborhood and, ultimately, to create a guide to help the residents understand where to buy food as an alternative to Pathmark.
Over more than a month, we assessed with them every corner store of the surrounding neighborhoods which had been as diverse as Two Bridges, but had been gradually taken over by the Chinese community. The results: the more we surveyed, the more in love we felt with Chinatown. Caitlin and I experienced the neighborhood as two children in a candy store – visiting the stores, abundantly stocked with every different variety and color of produce, and browsing the fish and seafood, so fresh that it could flip out of the packaging.
Finally, the fear of the diverse – and maybe a one-stop shopping culture, a culture of the speed that does not allow us to feel truly connected to what we buy – seemed to keep non-Chinese residents away from that wonderful source of food. The project of Two Bridges, then, was not only a temporary support for families who did not know where to shop, not only a way to develop the local economy and help small corner stores to grow and survive the bad times and natural disaster. It also became, with time, a symbolic bridge between cultures, an invitation to take advantage of the healthy diversity that the city can offer.
By the end of our survey we had fully realized how meaningful it can be to look into enriching local resources instead of waiting for the big guys (big supermarkets, the government) to intervene. And yes, at the end of the survey, we were also thankful for all the delicious Chinese restaurants where we could stop for a lunch break. But this is another story…