A GUEST POST BY JP RESIDENT GRETCHEN VAN NESS
On Thursday June 2nd, 13 representatives of Whole Foods Market came to Jamaica Plain for their long-awaited meeting with the community. I met my neighbors on Cranston Street and we walked down to the Curley School together to hear what Whole Foods had to say. On the way, a brief, light summer shower broke out and a rainbow graced the sky over the Acapulco Restaurant. I was filled with optimism about the evening. Now, finally, the community would come together, meet the people behind the Whole Foods name, get their questions answered, and finally, possibly, begin to move forward together.
As we approached the site of the meeting, however, I realized that our unexpected rainbow wasn’t about JP that evening. The broad steps of the Curley School were littered with people in blue t-shirts and boxes of blue t-shirts. A few people were handing out blue flyers. It was the Whose Foods/Whose Community group that was formed in opposition to Whole Foods last winter. I recognized some faces from previous community meetings, but many of the young faces were new to me. A couple of people handed out yellow flyers that read, “Hyde Square and J.P. Welcomes Whole Foods” in English and Spanish.
I watched as people approached the building, confused about the array of blue stretched across the stairs. Some people walked away. But others bravely navigated the WF/WC obstacle course, and soon I followed them into the auditorium. Most people were seated and were waiting patiently for the meeting to start, but there was a flurry of WF/WC blue up and down the aisles and back and forth across the rear of the auditorium. There were police officers everywhere. On each of our seats was a reusable Whole Foods shopping bag with various brochures and a pre-paid postcard for sending food suggestions to the company. Damn — we were hoping for cookies!
The meeting started with the Whole Foods folks introducing themselves. We met the mangers of the new store and many others, including Laura Derba, the current VP of the North Atlantic Region who started out working part-time at the salad bar. There was a brief PowerPoint presentation. Each speaker sounded upbeat, but one young woman’s voice wavered slightly. It was then that I realized how intimidating the auditorium must have looked to the people sitting in front of us. Someone in a blue t-shirt also picked up on this moment of weakness and shouted out an anti-Whole Foods comment. The presentation continued and the blue t-shirted folks all suddenly raised their blue flyers into the air. We looked around and couldn’t figure out what prompted the action until we saw two people photographing the crowd from the stage in front. An older couple a few rows down from us raised their Whole Foods shopping bags in the air, as they had apparently missed getting a yellow flyer at the door.
Then there was movement and sound above us. Two people were attempting to unfurl a banner from the balcony. It was upside down at first, but when they got it straightened out, we could read its message: “Displacement: What is Whole Foods Going To Do About It?” In all of the commotion that followed (this was when the first two arrests occurred and Chris Helms, editor of the JP Patch, almost got himself arrested, too, because he had chosen that moment to check out the view from the balcony), I remember thinking that this was the first anti-Whole Foods banner I’d seen that wasn’t also in Spanish and how strange that seemed. The people in the blue t-shirts were chanting “No Whole Foods! No Whole Foods!”
But the chanting died down and the meeting continued with the Q&A session. The first speaker was the Executive Director of the Hyde Square Task Force. He was very, very angry that the meeting was not being held in “Hyde Square” and accused Whole Foods of arrogance in having the meeting at the Curley School. Everyone around me sat in mystified and uncomfortable silence. Wasn’t this the organization that had just received a $8,500 donation from Whole Foods? Why wasn’t the Executive Director thanking Whole Foods for its support and telling the community how the money had been put to use? And we had just walked the few blocks from our homes in Hyde Square to a school attended by kids who live in Hyde Square where Whole Foods has donated a salad bar. What was wrong with meeting here?
As the speaker continued, at first one by one and then in larger numbers, people got up from their seats, walked quietly to the front of the auditorium, shook hands with and thanked each of the Whole Foods representatives, and left. The speaker never even paused. After he had far exceeded the allotted two minutes and hadn’t asked a question, some people in the audience started shouting, “Question? Question?” I never heard one.
But subsequent speakers did have questions and Whole Foods had answers. Despite countless interruptions and chanting and name-calling, we learned a few things. That the JP store is considered a small store and that the parking lot holds 65 cars, which is sufficient for the store size. That Whole Foods has entered into a long-term lease with the MSPCA/Angell across the street for overflow parking; that they are hiring locally and expect most of their employees to get to work by foot, bicycle, or bus. That they are already in discussions with the city to improve and expand the bus stop in front of the store. That as soon as possible after the store opens and they can assess how the parking is working, they will make their lot available to neighboring businesses. That a complete delivery service will be available from day one. That they will have a trailer in the parking lot this summer where people can apply for jobs.
And that was about it. Although the police had earlier arrested the two people with the banner, they had not confiscated the banner. As one of the WF/WC members spoke, several people in blue t-shirts charged down the aisle, attempting to unfurl the banner again. The police were close behind and grabbed a corner of the banner. There was a brief tug-of-war, which the police won. As they retreated, a woman followed after the officers, hitting one of them repeatedly. Laura Derba then announced that the police were ending the meeting.
As we filed out of the auditorium, the blue t-shirted folks who remained started chanting “No Justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” On the steps outside, a young man called for people to march to Washington and Green Streets, where the police had taken the people they arrested. “Where is that?” several young people in blue t-shirts called out, as they entered the address in their smart phones. A few of my neighbors remained. As police cars converged on the Curley School from every direction, we started the walk home. I looked for the rainbow again. It was gone.