When Journal Squared, KRE’s three-tower mega project redefining Journal Square, began leasing in spring of 2017, it was a sign that the neighborhood’s long elusive resurgence had finally arrived. Advertisements featured astronauts completing mundane tasks in luxury apartments overlooking Manhattan, implying that relocating to Jersey City is like traveling to another planet. The second building isn’t due until 2020, but the first one opened in March and already looms 54 stories over the neighborhood. As the area changes, long-standing businesses are hoping to last amid the new crowd of residents.
Mi Tierra Deli & Grocery, on the corner of Broadway and Van Wagenen Avenue, is one of those businesses that sits in the tower’s shadow. Located just minutes from the Journal Square PATH Station, one block from India Square, and across the street from P.S. 23, the bodega is situated in the heart of the rapidly expanding neighborhood.
Nicolas Vasquez has owned Mi Tierra Deli and Grocery since 2002. He came to Jersey City from the Dominican Republic in 1988 and opened his first bodega in Greenville in 1992. Two years later, he opened Borinquen Corner Grocery across the street from Puccini’s. He then purchased Mi Tierra, and today, he runs it with his wife, Fe, son Alfridy, and daughter-in-law, Yesenia Checo.
The estimated 13,000 bodegas in New York City, considered emblematic of city life, face pressures from rising rents, increasing numbers of chain stores, and even changes in customer demands. Across the river in Jersey City, the Hispanic American Commerce Association (HACA) works to protect bodegas from similar issues and bridges the gap between the community, city government, and Hispanic-owned businesses.
Vasquez is an HACA board member and says that before the organization was founded in 2015, bodegas faced significant problems. “Before the city inspectors would come in whenever they wanted. Even on Thanksgiving,” Vasquez told Jersey Digs. Miscommunications led to unnecessary closures, and for a bodega, shutting down for even just a day or two can be detrimental for business.
“This is our life. In the mornings, our hearts are like this,” explained Checo, mimicking a fast heart beat with her hand.
“The store is such a necessity for the community,” said Vasquez. “People don’t have to go far if they need anything. We’re always here. Three hundred sixty five days a year.”
“Before this area was very dangerous,” said Vasquez. “In the morning, when we were really busy, a lot of people [would try] to rob the store.” The family shares they have noticed decreased crime and even changes in customer demographics in the neighborhood, which most likely be attributed to the new developments in Journal Square. Beyond the three mega towers, projects such as 3 Journal Square, Nest Micro Apartments, HAP Tower, and 808 Pavonia have either opened, seen ground broken, or are in development.
New businesses in Journal Square invest in the neighborhood for current residents, just like the bodegas that been part of the community for decades. Yet the programs new establishments receive praise for implementing aren’t effectively communicated to Spanish-speaking business owners. In fact, neither the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation, JC Small Biz, nor the Office of Innovation, which support small businesses and improve community development, translate their online materials into Spanish. This highlights the continued importance of an organization like HACA to connect small businesses to the services that the city provides.
Longtime business owners like Vasquez want more investment in small businesses from the city and opportunities to improve the store. “If the area’s going to be nice, we want the business to be nice too,” said Checo.
The family says they feel unsupported by the city and don’t always receive positive responses from elected officials when they raise concerns about garbage pick up or traffic issues near P.S. 23. “When they [politicians] win, they don’t come here no more,” said Vasquez.
In spite of the challenges of owning a bodega in a changing neighborhood, Vasquez is not worried for the future largely because they own their property. While Vasquez acknowledges there has been outside interest in purchasing Mi Tierra, “he’s not selling,” according to Checo.
Being a bodega owner for 25 years in Jersey City is a source of pride for Vasquez. “For me, the best thing that has happened is being an entrepreneur in the bodega business because through the store, I have been able to pay for my kids’ education.” Vazquez, along with his family, hopes to keep serving and providing their neighbors with better coffee than the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street for years to come.
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