At first glance, the Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain looks like any other. But there are subtle differences — from the salt cod at the fish counter to the shelves packed with Goya products. Wanda Hernandez, the store's team leader, says none of these idiosyncrasies is accidental.
“We truly are who we say we are,” Hernandez said of Whole Foods. “You know, we bring a store and we make it fit the community.”
When Whole Foods replaced the Latino supermarket Hi-Lo Foods back in the fall of 2011, critics warned it would drive up property values and push longtime residents out. Hernandez grew up in JP, and says she felt the furor firsthand.
“Yeah, I got that, especially from some restaurants and bodega owners that I know,” she said. “But it’s because they hear ‘Whole Foods,’ they hear ‘Corporate America.’ It was the unknown to them. And to me, it was like, ‘That’s not true!’”
Hernandez passionately believes that Whole Foods is good for the neighborhood. It provides about 130 well-paying jobs, for example. Residents also have more access to organic produce than they used to — and the store routinely donates money to the community.
But according to sociologist Glenn Jacobs, that's just part of the story.
“There was a cultural ecology that was just decimated,” Jacobs said of Hi-Lo’s departure.
Jacobs is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He’s researching the impact of Whole Foods’ arrival on JP’s Latino community and says that for many people, Hi-Lo was as much a social scene as it was a place to shop.
“I remember a woman saying, 'You know, Hi Lo was like a market back in the DR, in the Dominican Republic,'” Jacobs says.
“It was like an outdoor market. When you were there, you could run into people and see even Latino folks who you might not even see outside. You would catch up on news about each other, their families. And you didn’t go in there just to pick up something and then leave.”
But Jacobs also points out that the change Whole Foods represents has been roiling JP for decades. And after years of gentrification, some residents feel like their old neighborhood is being stolen in slow motion.
Case in point: a dry cleaner who vented his frustrations to Carlos Espinoza-Toro, a community organizer at Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition.
“I was talking to him in Hyde Square,” Espinoza-Toro recalled. “And he said to me, ‘Look at this. I have all of these clothes. People haven’t picked it up in one year.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because they’re no longer here. They’re out. Most of my clients used to be Hispanic. And I don’t have any clients any more.’”
Espinoza-Toro believes that the impact of gentrification on JP is ambiguous. But he says the downside has to be acknowledged.
“I cannot make a statement that says that gentrification is good or bad,” Espinoza-Toro says. “But what I can say is that, when I’m working in the community, the negative impacts of gentrification are real.”
Still, Espinoza-Toro admits that he’s a Whole Foods shopper. So is Jacobs.
“They have a Dominican Chef, and they prepare foods,” Jacobs says with a shrug. “I’ll go in there, I see rabo, which is oxtail. It’s not bad!”
So perhaps the once-fierce debate over JP’s Whole Foods is finally quieting down — even if anxiety over the community’s character isn’t.
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