Urbane :: A Preamble

**Note:  This letter was originally published in August 2010.  We are re-publishing due to the site relaunch.**

Fall of 1987.  North Philadelphia convulsed under the pressure of drugs, death, and decay.  Eric B and Rakim forever changed the essence of hip hop.  Randall Cunningham began to lead the Eagles out of the football wilderness.

I noticed none of this.

Instead, I was preoccupied with trying to convince my mother not to dress me in rainbow colored sweaters and corduroys.

I was a sweet, chubby kid who went to Christian school on the other side of town.  Basically cannon fodder for bullies in Strawberry Mansion and the Badlands.   I learned the escape valves quickly.  Most involved the nearest corner store.   The store on the corner of my block didn’t have a name; it was just Mr. Brown’s store.  In ’87, it was my oasis from potential belligerents.

Mr. Brown was a large man with leathery face, full of wrinkles and crevices.  His coarse brown hands told tales I was too young to understand, but I knew enough not to trifle with him.  Mr. Brown “tolerated no foolishness” in his store, so I hung out with him until the bullies got bored of waiting outside.  It was clear on my first day of hiding that the grocery game was about relationships.  Mr. Brown dispensed more wisdom, mediated more disputes, and instigated more gossip by himself than all the barbershops, churches, and grandmothers on stoops in North Philly.  All while taking your hard earned dollars.

Penny candy, quarter waters, corn chips, batteries, socks… if you wanted it, he sold it.  Half the neighborhood cashed their paychecks at his store.  Half the neighborhood worked at his store at some point.  Half the neighborhood had cavities because of his store.   The entire neighborhood shopped at his store.   Eventually, I did all four things.  $1 a day to sweep the floors afterschool.  Who knew cowardice paid so well!

Mr. Brown sold me a masonry jar to save all my money in.  He said I was going to need it, because things are going to get worse before they got better.  Things seemed fine to me – minimal bullying and flush with cash, win-win.   By the end of ’88, Mr. Brown had lost a bunch of weight and kept saying something about his kidneys.  He started on dialysis due to complications with his diabetes – too much penny candy – and sold the store in the spring of ’89.  The new owners were a Korean couple, who spoke about 8 words of English combined and their 12 year old daughter, Lucy.

I had just turned 10.  No real growth spurt, but Nintendo had eliminated much of the immediate bullying threat as most kids ran in the house to play Zelda and Mario on NES, which finally was cheap enough to buy in Mansion.  Mr. Brown’s store was the last of the black-owned grocery stores in my neighborhood.  I was too young to realize how vital his role as a community anchor and connector had between.  I did recognize that the store would be forever changed, as would the neighborhood.

Summer of 1993.  Ed Rendell was fomenting a full scale revival in Downtown Philadelphia.  Strawberry Mansion evoked more elemental movements – like inertia or plate tectonics.  I was 14, dipped in the latest Cross Colours and Karl Kani gear and ready to head to uncharted frontiers for further explorations of knowledge and goodness (read: New England boarding school).  More importantly, it was my summer of love and Lucy Kim was my unrequited love.  And I had a killer growth spurt – 5’10 and wiry!

Kim’s Market looked like most other Korean grocery stores I’d seen in Philly.  Way less fresh food than Mr. Brown’s.  More lottery and cigarettes than anything else.   The first couple of years, Kim’s had a rough go of it.  The language issues, perceived interloper factor, and a general decline in conviviality all contributed to a fractured relationship between store and community.  But Lucy Kim changed that.

Behind the plexiglas, Lucy became the face of Kim’s Grocery.  Equal parts ambassador, educator, and entrepreneur, Lucy learned the North Philly market well.  It was all about relationships.  She chatted up the grandma’s, soothed the bruised egos of the thugs, and batted her long eyelashes at the boys on the block, who seemed to stop in Kim’s way more often than they needed to.  In that dance, she figured out what products moved and she pushed the hell out of them.  Bananas, bread, beer.  Didn’t matter.  Lucy could sell ice to an Eskimo.

Lucy and I talked mostly in 90 second intervals.  About school, sports, music.  She would test out new junk food on me.  I ate wasabi peas for the first time because of Lucy.  Tears of horseradish induced joy flowed down my cheeks.  When I told her I was going to Exeter, she was the only person who immediately knew what that was.  The day before I left for school, Lucy emerged from the Plexiglas divider to give me a hug.  She was shorter up close than I’d imagined.  She smelled like an amalgam of berry flavors.  She gave me a bunch of Asian dried snacks and wished me luck.

It was the last time I saw Lucy.

The Kim’s sold the store to another Asian family who decided to convert the corner store to its more infamous cousin, the Chinese take-out.  New Super Dragon was born while I was away at school.  There was a certain physical dissonance about this take-out spot anchoring my block.  It had a different energy – the smell of MSG was overpowering in the early 90s.  The space was much more sterile, all white with malt liquor posters providing splashes of blacks and brown along the wall.

While they made a helluva beef and broccoli, they couldn’t cook a cheesesteak or fry chicken wings to save their life.  So, in the summer of ’94, I convinced Tek, the owner, to let me cook the “American” food.  My cheesesteak game was vicious.  Added more egg to the breading of the chicken wings and fried them harder for the clientele.  Once people saw me in the kitchen and legend of my cooking prowess spread, Tek (and I) made way more money.

Tek and his family were Chinese from Guizhou province and decided to make a go of it after a cousin told them about the possibilities of entrepreneurship in the States.  This was his 4th take-out spot.  I asked him why he didn’t just run a grocery store.  Profits are higher on chicken wings than penny candies, he told me.  I understood, but it the vibe was never the same.  Everything was transactional.  The emotional distance matched the increasing physical distance between proprietor and patron.

My senior year of high school, Tek sold the take-out spot to another family.  Those owners saw no need to interact with me beyond taking my money and giving me my food.  I stopped shopping at New Super Dragon, which by this point, was dingy and worn out.  The store ceased to be a communal space and the block slowly atrophied.  Block parties less of a spectacle.  Trees cut down due to city maintenance needs.  Homes on my block lay vacant and fallow for the first time in my life.  Yet, I was preparing for newer horizons, so any angst I held for the state of the store and the block was fleeting.

Took me a while to find my way back, but 12 years later I started Urbane Development, in part, to try to help bring some of the old communal dynamism back to Strawberry Mansion.  To my surprise, there was already a new energy on the block.  More kids.  A tree sapling powers through the ground in front of my mom’s house.   Newly minted grandmothers occupy the stoops now.  And around the corner, Santiago’s Market, with baby and graduation pictures lining the plexiglas, had chubby kids running to ask Papi for nickel candies.  While these kids weren’t seeking safe passage as I was, they walked out with way more crappy food than I did.  I don’t know which is worse, but I do know that Santiago’s and stores like it offer both old lessons in community building and new challenges for both entrepreneur and patron.  I offer this space as a place to chronicle this new narrative – of stores and their communities trying to make it in urban spaces across America…  and the world.

The good, the bad, the ridiculous, and the sublime… The Bodega Chronicles.

Hope you enjoy it.