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A Whole Foods Fight in Boston

Grad students and hipsters protest the organic market, but many Latino residents are happy about the new shopping option and the jobs.

Michael C. Moynihan
April 19, 2011

Aida Lopez has been an involuntary resident of Jamaica Plain since 1970, the year she was forced out of Fidel Castro's Cuba. She settled in this largely Hispanic Boston neighborhood because of the low rents and familiar language. But in her years in J.P.—as the neighborhood is known locally—Ms. Lopez has watched it transform from a mostly ethnic enclave to a mix of Latino immigrants, grad students, gays and lesbians, and bearded hipsters, all seeking cheap housing in one of the country's most expensive cities.

As Jamaica Plain's demography has shifted, so too have the community's retail needs. For 47 years, the Hi-Lo grocery store provided J.P. residents with staple items and a vast stock of Latin American products. But when Knapp Food group, the Massachusetts-based owners of Hi-Lo, decided that they had had enough of the supermarket business, they pulled out of Jamaica Plain, shuttered a local landmark, and negotiated a 20-year lease with Austin, Texas-based grocery giant Whole Foods.

You can guess what happened next.

Local activists mobilized, Internet message boards seethed, talk radio hosts pontificated. But the Cuban exiles gathered at Ms. Lopez's gift shop, La Casa de la Regalos, shrugged at the latest addition to the area. "I bought my Spanish food at Hi-Lo," said Aida Lopez's daughter Rosa, "but just the Cuban stuff and milk." She wrinkled her nose: "The meat wasn't fresh." All agreed that Jamaica Plain needed more shopping options—chain store or otherwise.

But Christy Pardew, spokeswoman for Whose Foods, Whose Community?, an activist group protesting the forthcoming Whole Foods, says the issue is "keeping multinational chains out." According to Ms. Pardew, the addition of a high-end grocery store to Jamaica Plain will result in higher rents, pushing low-income residents from the neighborhood. "It's a term that real estate agents use," she intoned, "called 'the Whole Foods effect.'"

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But real estate agents aren't economists, and Ms. Pardew admitted that there "isn't a lot of academic research" to back up the claim that stores like Whole Foods destroy low-income, ethnic communities. In fact, evidence points in the opposite direction: "To blame gentrification for rising rents is to get things exactly backwards," says Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor. "Companies like Whole Foods are building in places where the clientele is there already. They follow the customer."

When studying gentrification patterns in Boston, Mr. Vigdor investigated claims that elevated rates of neighborhood departure correlated with rising rents. "Actually, I found that in the gentrifying neighborhoods, the turnover rate among long-term residents was actually lower than it was in other parts of the city," because most residents see changes like lower crime rates and the revivification of derelict buildings as positive developments.

"People think that gentrification is causing prices to rise, when it's actually the reverse. In cities that are popular places to live, where demand exceeds supply, and prices go up all over the place—this leads people to seek out neighborhoods that are less expensive," says Mr. Vigdor.

Census data for Jamaica Plain show that Whole Foods is indeed following demographic trends, not simply hoping that if a store is built, the yuppies will come. In the past decade, the Hispanic population in J.P. has declined by 10 percent, while the African-American community shrunk by almost 15 percent.

Laura Derba, Whole Foods' president for the North Atlantic region, thinks that "The issue in Jamaica Plain is change." What it isn't about, she says, is Hi-Lo workers now being out of jobs. "We held a job fair for them," she points out, "and 28 [of 40] came. And 20 or so of them have been hired by Whole Foods."

Did Hi-Lo provide health care to its 40 employees? Anti-Whole Foods activist Ms. Pardew admits she doesn't know, adding that "the stories we hear from [Hi-Lo] employees is that they weren't great employers."

In contrast, last year Whole Foods ranked 18th on Fortune magazine's "100 best companies to work for." The company will provide health care to 70 of the 100 employees in the J.P. store. And while activists complain that the store "is unaffordable to many families in Jamaica Plain," an informal survey by Boston Globe blogger Rob Anderson found that "Comparable pasta, cereal, and soap products were all cheaper at Whole Foods than at Hi-Lo, and the store much vilified as 'whole paycheck' had the cheapest milk of any store in the city."

As activists focus their ire on Whole Foods, check-cashing shops that dot Jamaica Plain and the Rent-a-Center a few short blocks from the Whole Foods construction site operate free of pickets. Though both types of business are frequently accused of demanding usurious interest rates that exploit the poor, they possess one important advantage over Whole Foods: They are immune from aesthetic charges of yuppification.

Rosa Lopez, a lifelong resident of Jamaica Plain, cycles through stories from the bad old days, incredulously wondering what the protesters think was so grand about J.P. in the 1970s or '80s. "Telling people that they can't open a business here? After they rented the space? That sounds like something that happens in Cuba," she chuckles. In a gift shop that displays rolls of toilet paper emblazoned with Castro's face, it isn't meant as a compliment.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal. This article previously appeared at Reason.com.


Michael C. Moynihan is Senior Editor, Reason Magazine


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