Where I grew up in Ridgewood, there were and still are a lot of bakeries that hold my memories. Rudy’s on Seneca Avenue has been in the neighborhood for decades and introduced my newly arrived Puerto Rican dad to German and Italo-Americano pastries. Now he orders baskets of their danishes to give out for the holiday season. The Mexican bakeries taught me to eventually love tres leches cakes and pan dulce.
But Joel’s Bakery on Palmetto, on the “border” of Bushwick and Ridgewood, is one that has been in my life for as long as I can remember. They currently sell a mix of Dominican and Puerto Rican pastries. Their sheet or circular birthday cakes were and still are white and came with either blue, pink or green roses and covered in the thick, stiff meringue-based Dominican frosting. They’re usually filled with strawberry, guayaba, vanilla and piña. I used to complain that those were the only cakes I used to get for my birthday… but now I’m addicted. The cakes have an amazing crumbly texture; they’re airy and almost fluffy, but not in the way someone who isn’t used to those types of cakes would expect. And the best kind is the guayaba-filled cake. It’s only second to the pastelitos.
I’m convinced that guayaba is the fruit of the gods. It’s so hard to get certain fresh tropical fruits in New York so often times I have to convince relatives in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to mail me fruit whenever they’re in season. Apart from that, I have a very small handful of supermarkets that carry the products and sweets I crave, and the pastelitos de guayaba at Joel’s. They’re square and made out of two puffed pastries that sandwich fresh guayaba paste that’s sweet, tangy and somewhat grainy. They’re usually sprinkled with a dust of powdered sugar that gets everywhere. Joel’s is one of the few places I go to where the guayaba paste is always fresh and a little bit runny. The Dominican lady behind the counter has the same Cibaeño accent as my grandfather, and she calls all of her customers “mi amor.” It makes the pastries that much more special.
They’re one of the few places I can still get that kind of pastry. Gentrification has hit the Bushwick-Ridgewood area like a runaway truck. I saw it coming but then I also didn’t. One day there were several Caribbean bakeries that I could walk to or just take the L train to, and the next they were closing down and turning into expensive restaurants or chain stores that I try to avoid. The Colombian bakery two blocks away from my apartment used to have a similar flakey guayaba-filled pastry, but it’s not the same as the Caribbean version. And that bakery closed and became a cell phone store, as if we don’t already have a billion of those all over the city where there used to be small businesses.
I see their closures and I keep my fingers crossed for Joel’s Bakery. On that side of the block there used to be a newspaper stand, a little store that sold gum, magazines, and umbrellas to commuters, and a deli. And sometime in the ’90s, when I was barely out of preschool, I think there was a flower shop. Now there’s a chain pharmacy, a T-Mobile store, and around the corner there’s a Planet Fitness and a Starbucks. But Joel’s is there. And they sell the same brown bread that my mom loves because it reminds her of the kipe that’s sold in her hometown. I remember the guy that works there once gave a man a free loaf to feed the birds outside during winter because they were worried about the pigeons going hungry. It smells like a small bakery in Coamo, Puerto Rico, that I visit with my dad when they’re baking the bread. And it helps me forget the smells of a nearby supermarket dumpster.
There are a lot of bakeries that will come and go in my neighborhood. The new ones aren’t bad at all. They have locally sourced coffees, elegant bread, pies, and the workers are nice. I don’t want to feel any anger towards those businesses and their owners, but I can’t help but feel like small Caribbean bakeries like Joel’s are threatened whenever they open a shiny new storefront while Joel’s feels more like a secret that longtime residents are keeping alive. It seems almost frivolous that a small hole-in-the-wall bakery is what makes my rapidly changing neighborhood feel like home, but it is. A lot of things can change, but I always hope that the pastelitos will be there to comfort me throughout all of that.