“Bodegas and Colmados: Dominican Vernacular Space in Washington Heights”

By Pedro A. Regalado

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Merengue blares, the subway rumbles, and the metal gates of shops clatter upward; Washington Heights is open for business. Located in Upper Manhattan’s elevated reaches, this neighborhood is far from New York City’s bustling core. Today, Washington heights contains the highest population of Dominicans outside of the Dominican Republic and has become a haven for Dominican immigrants during the late 20th century.

Among the neighborhood’s most ubiquitous vernacular spaces are convenience stores commonly known to New Yorkers as bodegas. Sporting telling and nostalgic names like Mi Sueño (My Dream), Mi País (My Country), and Brisas del Sur (Southern Breezes), these spaces are not simple corner stores. Rather, bodegas in Washington Heights are condensed hubs of Dominican culture that function in diverse economic and socio-cultural ways.

Bodegas reveal a cultural and transnational history that has resulted from rapid Dominican migration to New York City. And though iconic to New York’s scenery, Dominican bodegas derive their spatial and cultural characteristics from their transnational counterparts known as colmados, small commercial entities covering the Dominican urban landscape.

Both spaces possess important markers of Dominican urban culture, and the heavy daily interactions they produce among their patrons influence Dominican notions of community, identity, and place. To truly understand the bodega’s place in New York as a vernacular building type that embodies Dominican culture, one must first understand the colmados’ role in Dominican daily life.

El Colmado

Comprised of a single room with an attendant and a broad entrance that opens onto the sidewalk, the colmado offers a variety of everyday products including food, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, household cleaning items, and other products for daily use.[1] But unlike bodegas in New York, the colmado is not a self-service establishment. Instead, patrons might request a few ounces of sugar, tomato sauce, or a slice of ham to be weighed on a scale and purchased.[2]

Colmados are intimately tied to the sidewalks and alleys they occupy. They carry café-like atmospheres where family and friends stand or sit outdoors in plastic chairs chatting, drinking, people watching, or playing dominoes. Roaring music, impassioned yelling, and alcohol-filled nights are not uncommon to colmados. As historian Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof points out, “[b]y the middle of the 1960’s, the colmados and their jukeboxes had turned the barrios into exceptionally noisy places.”[3]

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Amounting to 28 percent of the country’s small businesses by 1994, colmados are typically close in proximity to their patrons.[4] With frequent trips, neighborhood residents foster close relationships between colmado owners—who commonly allow purchases on credit—and other residents in the community, transforming the businesses into neighborhood forums. These factors result in intimate relationships between colmados and the communities they serve.

In a 2007 Dominican news article, one colmado owner remarked, “A colmado is like a supermarket for the poor because it is located in popular sectors and where the town’s people go to buy and where anything is sold on credit. Here, people find everything basic that they need and sometimes without money, and with the promise that they will play later.”[5] Given Dominican urban norms concerning space and finance, the colmado has become an urban lifeline.

La Bodega

Dominican bodegas in Washington Heights are at once products of the U.S. postindustrial crisis and Dominican entrepreneurship in New York City. As Dominicans flooded Manhattan’s northern reaches during the 1960’s, the manufacturing jobs they pursued were leaving the city.[6] Deindustrialization ravaged New York’s industrial base and from 1967 to 1987, the city lost 520,000 manufacturing jobs.[7] Amidst high unemployment rates, Dominicans began to develop businesses with few prerequisites that would have otherwise barred them from other employment opportunities. They purchased bodegas from their Puerto Rican and Cuban counterparts who had established bodegas in the 1930’s.

By 1991, the New York Times wrote, “[Dominican’s] entrepreneurial zeal has apparently bought them most of the city’s bodegas and many of its livery cabs, and, to an exuberant merengue beat, they have revived a decaying Washington Heights.”[8] A year later, of the 122 corner stores between 154th street and 187th street, 77 percent were Dominican-owned.[9]

Like the colmado, Dominican needs and demands in Washington Heights are met by the bodega’s proximity to Dominican patrons. Based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, in Washington Heights census tract 245 which stretches from 158th Street to 165th Street and contains over a dozen bodegas and over 12,000 residents mostly of Dominican descent, the walking time for one of its resident to reach the a bodega a from one end of the census tract to the other while all others, was eleven minutes in 2014.

Like the colmado, Dominican needs and demands in Washington Heights are met by the bodega’s proximity to Dominican patrons. Based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, in Washington Heights census tract 245 which stretches from 158th Street to 165th Street and contains over a dozen bodegas and over 12,000 residents mostly of Dominican descent, the walking time for one of its resident to reach the a bodega a from one end of the census tract to the other while all others, was eleven minutes in 2014.

Today, bodegas in Washington Heights offer a plethora of American, Latino, and specific Dominican brand products catering to the Dominican diet. Greeted by an attendant wishing the patron buenos dias (good morning) or saludos (greetings), morning commuters grab snacks on the go. In the afternoon, the space fills with young students hovering about a counter rich with sweets, merengue tunes filling the background of the thousand square foot space.

For Dominicans patrons, it is not only what is sold that is significant, but how it is sold. Like the colmado, patrons consistently visit their nearby bodegas and become familiar with the employees or owners, exchanging simple pleasantries upon contact.[10] As virtual extensions of their home, the bodega becomes a place where Dominicans share information and news about their lives, topics of common interest, and mutual acquaintances. They seek advice from bodega attendants and continue to build old and new relationships in a place that, like the colmado, has come to function as a cultural home.[11]

In a testimony given to the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Health in 2010, then-president of the Bodega Association of the United States Ramon Murphy expressed, “[b]odegas are the heart of many neighborhoods. We are the corner store that you go to before work for a cup of coffee. During the day when you need a snack. And then again on your way home when you need to bring food to your family after a long day’s work. Bodegas are about convenience, community and having what you need, when you need it.”[12]

A brief moment with a Washington Heights bodega reveal culture’s power to create spaces that mirror both the past and present across borders. Throughout the late 20th century, Dominican immigrants arrived in New York in large numbers and the bodegas that they have fashioned function beyond simple commercial ascriptions, becoming symbols of culture both transported and transformed. In doing so, Dominicans have not only carved out a piece of home in one of the nation's most prominent urban centers, but also contributed to the cultural diversity that makes it unique.


Pedro A. Regalado is a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University.


[1] In 2007, the Dominican-run Bodega Association of the United States claimed membership of 7,800 of New York City’s bodegas including those not particularly owned by Dominicans.

[2] This is also where the word colmado originates as “colmar” means to fill to the brim.

[3] Hoffnung-Garskof, 63.

[4] Murray, 6.

[5] El Listin Diario is a prominent Dominican Newspaper based in Santo Domingo. This colmado owner in the interview did mention, however, that he does not sell beer or rum on credit. Jairon Severino, “Un colmado es mejor que un Supermercado para pobres,” El Listin Diario. December 27, 2007.{ Translated}

[6] During initial initial migration, Dominicans mostly found work in manufacturing trades, including work with garments and leather. Patricia R. Pessar, A Visa for a Dream: Dominicans in the United States (Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), 36.

[7] Ibid.

[8] That year, Dominican immigrants owned around 80 percent of the approximately 9,000 Latino bodegas and independent groceries in New York City. Sara Rimer, “Between 2 Worlds-Dominicans in New York,” The New York Times, September 16, 1991. Krohn-Hansen, 47.

[9] Alvarez Mo, 32.

[10] Since bodegas are physically more closed off than colmados, the bodega interior becomes the place where the majority of interactions occur during the winter as more Dominicans mingle indoors.

[11] Though illegal, some bodega owners also allow the patrons they are close with the privilege of drinking alcohol within the store.

[12] Ramon Murphy, “Testimony Before the New York Senate Standing Committee on Health.” January 22, 2010: http://www.nysenate.gov/files/pdfs/Ramon%20Murphythe%20Bodega%20Association%20of%20the%20United%20States.pdf, Accessed on October 20, 2014.