The Yellow Awnings of New York
Delis, Bodegas, Superettes...Whatever you call them, these corner storefronts are a vanishing nighttime glory.
We used to have more delis in New York City. Delis and bodegas. I differentiate between the two, although some people do not. The bodegas serve the more Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods.
We also used to have - here in the city and in Yonkers, where I grew up - Italian delis, Jewish delis, and German delis. We may have even had Irish delis, but my memory fails me here. The differences often came down to who owned the place, and also what ethnic specialties they offered, from groceries to sandwiches to potato salad. Either way, it was a rich and colorful gustatory tapestry and many neighborhoods had a deli on every block.
Gentrification and the billionaire-ification of Manhattan have made the local deli an endangered species. Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx still have a decent number of bodegas, but they are getting more scarce as well. It’s a tough business and the profit margins are not high.
The New York City delis, superettes and bodegas used to have yellow awnings. Visibility is precious and those awnings were an old expedient. Now, things like awnings and neon lights tend to be replaced by LED lighting, a technology that is an abysmal failure in all ways but one - it’s cheap. The local sellers and installers of LED lighting have convinced business owners to give up on their old neon signs. They make persuasive arguments. They point to the place across the street and say “See them? They are saving a ton of money. Look at how bright it is.”
The thing is, they’re not bright. The LEDs themselves are bright, but they don’t illuminate the storefronts or the lettering on the signs. They are a failed technology. I sense a major rant coming on. In fact, it’s too late. I already began. Too bad. I set out to extol the glories of yellow bodega and deli awnings and fell into a hate-filled word spew against a type of lighting. The thing is, LEDs are awful to photograph and they don’t help to sell a business. I’ll leave it at that.
YELLOW AWNINGS, on the other hand, touch a deep, primitive part of the brain. It may be the right half, it may be the left half, it may be some part of the nervous system we don’t even know about yet, but yellow speaks to people in a special way. Do I know what I’m talking about? Who knows? I DO know that it speaks to ME in a special way and that these yellow signs have been talking to me for a long time. When I began to shoot seriously again, in the late 1990s after a lapse of some years, my first idea was to put together a book on yellow bodegas.
These projects move slowly - at least with me they do - and this is my first real attempt to mess around with these photos. More are coming.
Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.” Find him on Amazon here.
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