A guest post by Anna Sandoval
The controversy over the opening of a Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain in what now is the Hi-Lo Foods began with rumors of the transaction in mid-January. When the story finally broke in the Boston media with the official announcement by Whole Foods that they were in fact opening a store it was a story that spoke of two polar opposites – the Latinos who wanted their market, versus the urbanites who would like to shop at better food options and supported not only the entry of Whole Foods but the economic possibilities that the story could bring to the community. What the media failed to tell and analyze is that even though Hi-Lo Foods is an important part of the Latino community it’s also a symbol of the complicated relations of class, race, generations, gentrification and the history of activism and community involvement in Jamaica Plain.
Last night I attended a community forum organized by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood council and the Hyde Jackson Square Main Street. The meeting was advertised as an open forum in which residents could express their thoughts and concerns about the opening of Whole Foods in Hyde Square. The concerns, we were told, would be later on shared with Whole Foods senior management. This was a standing room only meeting, filled with young and old; Latinos, but also blacks, whites. The JPNC provided simultaneous translation services, giving access to all in English and in Spanish. Since this was an open forum each speaker was given a 2 minute limit to express their views and feelings, the organizers asked that people refrain from outbursts, and that individuals state their name and address – nobody stated their address especially after being told that the session would be taped.
My host in this blog asked me to provide a sense of the both the supporters and the detractors of the Whole Foods market in Jamaica Plain. For the sake of full disclose I should tell you that I am a Latina resident of the neighborhood and that the closing of Hi-Lo the iconic market – and Latino institution – does not render me without opinion. I am not a report, but a sociologist and observer of the world around me, thus I do have opinions. I moved to Jamaica Plain after living around the United States and as an immigrant realized that I could find what I needed at the Hi-Lo, the Ducal refried beans, the Kerns ketchup I grew up with, and even the soups that got me through many cold. In addition I was happy to find a corner in a city where I could speak Spanish freely and happily, Hyde Square was truly for me a center to engage with Central America ethnically and culturally.
The meeting is a fascinating space to engage in the conversation over the opening of Whole Foods. The blogosphere in the weeks before today’s meeting have been filled with posts that support the opening of Whole Foods under the argument that such a store will bring to the neighborhood much needed jobs, higher quality food, an influx of business opportunities to the Hyde Square area that has struggled in recent years since the move or closing of several businesses, and it will increase the overall environment of the area thus increasing property values in the surrounding area of Jamaica Plain. In addition supporters have expressed their excitement over not having to drive to Dedham and Brookline to get groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s since now the store that caters to their needs will then be at their doorstep. The lone supporter that spoke up during the evening expressed his dismay and personal conflict – he said that he enjoyed his wife’s Caribbean food but was excited to see a Whole Foods in the neighborhood for all the above reasons. And then he said that he did not feel included in the conversation because there was too many people speaking against Whole Foods and that felt like people were speaking against him.
Those who spoke about the problems of having a Whole Foods in the middle of the Latin Quarter in Jamaica Plain did so passionately and eloquently. The concerns ranged into the immediate to the long-term, including the inevitable change of the fabric of the community. One pressing question was the issue over the process in which the transaction of the change between Hi-Lo Foods and whole Foods took place. The immediate concerns raised include the 43 lost jobs, the effect on local businesses, the effect that the changes will have on access to ethnically diverse food. In the long-term people spoke about the ways in which Whole Foods represents larger changes to the community that include a deeper class divide exacerbated by racial inequities, the process of gentrification, and the danger to diversity in the community. The audience spoke about the need to pressure Whole Foods to commit to providing jobs to local residents, a commitment to job training and the possibility to climb up the ladder. The cost of shopping at these stores was one of the main concerns that were brought up. The JPNC did their own analysis of the cost of basic food items between Hi-Lo, Stop and Shop and Whole Foods and on average Whole Foods products were 39% more expensive than Hi-Lo and 12% more expensive than Stop and Shop.
The transaction between Whole Foods and Knapp Foods, the owner of Hi-Lo Foods, has been a primarily closed-door transaction. This is possible because the transfer of lease is a private real estate transaction with no changes to the building use as of now. This was explained by elected officials Jeffrey Sánchez, Matt O’Malley, Felix Arroyo, and Ayanna Pressley, all present at the meeting and who have met with Whole Foods executives. The challenge for Whole Foods in entering Jamaica Plain is the fact that JP is known for community involvement and activist; this is after all the community that managed to stop the construction of highway 95 through the city of Boston. Whole Foods has released few details of their plans and was not present at the meeting. Executives have agreed to interview Hi-Lo Foods ex-employees with interview but no job guarantees or preference and agreed to a community meeting. What is missing is a commitment to the health of Jamaica Plain and the diversity that is central to the fabric of this community.
Bio: I am a Public Sociologist as such I work with organizations supporting fundraising efforts, design, development, and evaluation of programmatic activities based on research. In research I ask questions around Emerging Democracies; Latin American and Central American Studies; Migration; gangs and crime; and gender. I have served as an expert witness for U.S. immigration cases on behalf of asylum petitioners. You can connect with me on Twitter at @AnnaSandovalG