BOSTON/Jamaica Plain - Opponents and supporters of a new Whole Foods supermarket, scheduled to replace the recently-shuttered Hi-Lo Foods market, debated their positions at a meeting of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council at the John F. Kennedy School on Monday. Hi-Lo, a grocery store formerly catering to the Latino community, closed its doors after 47 years at the disputed location.
Outcry from some residents over the arrival of Whole Foods has resulted in a growing debate in the ethnically diverse, mixed-income community. Opponents have stated that the high-end market will only contribute to the continued gentrification of the neighborhood. They also argue that Whole Foods will be unaffordable to many families in JP and the expansion of the upscale national grocery chain into Hyde Square will drive up real-esate and commercial prices, consequently displacing more low-income families and businesses. Many remained hopeful that the arrival of the store can still be stopped, pointing out past examples of community pressure to heavily opposed plans, such as the expansion of the I-95 highway into JP, where the planned project eventually became the present-day Southwest Corridor, which now includes a park and extends along nine Orange Line stations.
"We have gone through struggles for years and years and years - and we have won those struggles," said Betsaida Gutiérrez, a Jamaica Plain resident of 39 years. "If we can stop the state from building a highway, don't you think we can stop Whole Foods?"
The Whose Foods/Whose Community Coalition, a grassroots opposition group, advocates for a locally-owned business that would serve low and moderate-income families in JP and beyond - one that would strengthen JP's cultural, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Others also stressed that JP has historically been a neighborhood for small businesses, and not the right place for large, national companies such as Whole Foods, which would be replace Hi-Lo.
The opponents held a rally in the Kennedy school gymnasium before the meeting. Following the protest, more than 200 people entered the school auditorium for the JP Neighborhood Council meeting to discuss the Whole Foods situation. Tension was high as approximately 40 speakers, including a mix of Whole Foods supporters and opponents (as well as some fence-sitters), alternated speaking for two minutes each. While the residents who spoke in favor of the store numbered about half as many as those who spoke against the company, some Whole Foods supporters stated that the reason for low attendance on their side was due to the fact that many supporters were afraid to publicly speak out in spaces that are dominated by an anti-Whole Foods majority.
People who spoke out against Whole Foods (including a former worker of the company), worried about the company's treatment of its workers and its known anti-union organizing sentiment, as well as the unavoidable "Whole Foods effect," where rents and the cost of living go up in the area wherever there is a Whole Foods present. "When Whole Foods opens up a store in a particular market, all the real estate in the area gets a nice uplift. It could be a few percent, to ten, 15 or 20 percent, in terms of the real estate value," quoted Homefries, a JP resident, as she read from a report on Whole Foods' socioeconomic impact on the neighborhoods it is located in.
Heather McCready, Public Relations Manager of the North Atlantic region of Whole Foods, told Open Media Boston that there are future plans for the company to reach out to concerned community members and address people's concerns. "We will absolutely be holding meetings with the community as soon as we are able to establish a timeline and plan for the store. During those meetings we will be answering questions and providing information, as well as asking the community what they want to see us offer in terms of products...Whole Foods Market is excited to be coming to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. We have been productive and responsible community partners since our first store opened 30 years ago. We look forward to continuing that tradition in JP."
Supporters of Whole Foods have extolled the creation of more than 100 jobs for the community by the company when the store opens, pointed out that there were already numerous empty storefronts in Hyde Square, and said they did not want to see another shuttered space in place of where Hi-Lo used to be if the opening of Whole Foods was to be circumvented. Others argued that gentrification was nothing new to JP and that the leasing of the storefront to Whole Foods was already a done deal.
"I'm delighted that Whole Foods is coming. I've lived here for 30 years and I've worked very hard for a long time to make it better. And I say, welcome, to all the new people who have come here and made this a safer, quieter, and cleaner place," said Pat Roberts. Additional supporters stated that Hi-Lo was dirty and didn't carry the type of fresh, quality-food that Whole Foods would offer to them and their families.
Some felt that a few supporters remarks - Roberts' amont them - were racist or classist and ignorant in nature and this prompted hissing and muffled comments from the crowd, even though it was requested of the audience at the start of the meeting that no applause or jeering would be allowed. Despite all the tension, the desire to foster dialogue between local business owners and the community, instead of having a chain come in and dictate what would be available in JP, was also in evidence. The JP Neighborhood Council's Chair Andrea Howley said that the council has yet to take a decisive stance on the Whole Foods debate, and will continue to listen to both sides.
The next JP Neighborhood Council meeting will be on Tuesday, March 8, at 7pm, at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain. On the meeting's agenda will be discussion by the council members on Whole Foods' plans to come to JP. This will be the first time the council holds its own public deliberations.