This is an open letter to Jamaica Plain by a resident of that neighborhood, Helen Matthews. The people of Jamaica Plain are currently grappling with a proposal to replace an affordable independent grocery store with a Whole Foods. Ms. Matthews asks her neighbors to stand with her against the new grocery store.
Photo from Whose Foods / Whose Community? The Coalition Against Gentrification facebook page.
I have been listening deeply to the heated controversy incited by the news that Whole Foods’ plans to open a new store in Hyde Square, the Latin Quarter of our neighborhood.
The lively debate of the past few weeks has inspired me to learn more, to research more, and to better understand the extent to which the arrival of a Whole Foods Market should be expected to contribute to gentrification in Jamaica Plain.
What I’ve learned is that for years journalists, real-estate agents, developers, and city planning consultants around the country have been discussing a phenomenon called “The Whole Foods Effect.” It refers to the impact of a Whole Foods store on the value of surrounding real-estate and its magnet-like tendency to draw other upscale stores.
The Whole Foods Effect, I’ve learned, has been known to dramatically accelerate the process of gentrification. Perhaps the most well-known commenter on this subject is the CEO of Whole Foods himself, John Mackey, who in a 2007 CNNmoney.com article said, “The joke is that we could have made a lot more money just buying up real estate around our stores and developing it than we could make selling groceries.”
While Mackey’s comment is both revealing and demonstrates a lack of concern about the role his company plays in the gentrification of neighborhoods, he is hardly the only person to point out this connection. Greg Badishkanian, an analyst with Citigroup who tracks Whole Foods, said in a 2006 NPR story, “When Whole Foods opens up a store in a particular market, all of the real estate in the area gets a nice uplift. It could be a few percent to 10, 15, 20 percent in terms of the real estate value.”
Realtors, too, have been saying it for years. For example, in Southern California, real estate agent Phillipe Rodrigue blogged in 2010, “one way to instantly increase property values is to have a big, beautiful Whole Foods Market open up right in your neighborhood!”
Much like Rodrigue, a Chicago realtor named Brett Hutchins wanted to buy a condo near a new Whole Foods in Sarasota, saying, ‘I know what happens to real-estate values when Whole Foods goes in.'”
Even a 2007 study in Portland, Oregon found that property values typically go up by about 17.5 percent if you live nearby a Whole Foods.
But out of all of the communities hit by the Whole Foods Effect, the Ward 2 neighborhood in Washington, D.C. is interestingly analogous to Boston’s Latin Quarter.
Ten years ago, at the turn of the century, D.C.’s Ward 2 went through a similar grocery store turnover during a major shift in its population and income. The parallels portend the risks that Hyde Square faces in welcoming a Whole Foods Market.
Neighborhoods in Transition
First of all, when the P Street Whole Foods opened in Ward 2, it replaced a more affordable grocery store (across the street).
Hyde Square’s affordable grocery store, Hi-Lo (arguably the most affordable grocer in Jamaica Plain), is set to be replaced by Whole Foods. So, in both communities, we see the transformation of an accessible grocery store to an upscale one.
Secondly, both neighborhoods were inhabited primarily by people of color and then saw these populations leave in large numbers during the ten years prior to catching the attention of Whole Foods. In the decade prior to Whole Foods’ new P Street store in Ward 2, the neighborhood’s African American population had declined by 23 percent. [also according to “The Impact of Whole Foods,” attached.] In Hyde Square, the percentage of residents of Latin American descent has declined 26 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Thirdly, as the racial makeup changed in each area, so did the income levels. The Jamaica Plain neighborhood experienced a roughly 20 percent increase in income in the last ten years, as did Ward 2 before the arrival of Whole Foods, according to Onboard LLC.
These similarities give us reason to look closely at what happened in Ward 2. There, the arrival of Whole Foods was the “watershed event” in the neighborhood’s gentrification. Clearly, it didn’t start the process, but it did cause its acceleration.
Turning up the Heat
Even the Community Liaison for the P Street Whole Foods, Zachary Stein, acknowledged it in a Public Radio Exchange piece: “How do I see our store as part of the gentrification? The newer residents wanted us to come, so we came and we catered to the newer residents … While we didn’t cause it, it was already happening before we got here … it was well on it’s way by the time we showed up, but I guess we sort of helped the process along.”
In that same Public Radio Exchange piece, a group of 8th-graders took their mics out on the streets of Ward 2 and recorded people’s views on the gentrifying impact of Whole Foods. Everyone seemed to acknowledge, as one person put it, “[Whole Foods] didn’t start the gentrification, but it definitely helped it.”
Another said, “Anytime you see a Whole Foods, you know that’s gonna be a new neighborhood. If a Whole Foods goes into a neighborhood, then you know that neighborhood’s changing.”
It “made a statement that this was going to be an area for wealthier shoppers,” according to a Whole Foods impact study.
The P Street study concluded, “the appearance of Whole Foods has dramatically increased the speed of gentrification in the area” – beyond the speed of grassroots checks and balances.
Walking through Ward 2, you’ll now see new condos, new niche stores for the wealthy, higher-end chain stores, older businesses that have had to adapt to survive, and new businesses that replaced the ones that didn’t (or couldn’t) adapt. Property values have escalated – the home of Wayne Dickson, who lobbied for the P Street Whole Foods, was worth $230,000 in 1986 and is now assessed at $1.6 million (Dickson understood the Whole Foods Effect before it even hit Ward 2, as evidenced in this Washinton Post piece.)
The most poignant observation of the damage done by the Whole Foods Effect ironically comes from Mr. Dickson, “We’re losing a great number of our poorer neighbors and our African American neighbors. Today there are only two remaining African American families on this block. There have been people who have cashed out, who have done very, very well — but! They won’t ever get back in.”
Some pre-existing residents may experience some specific benefits from some specific aspects of The Whole Foods Effect. But overall, we see the faces of neighborhoods changing. As Fran Robertson, a long-time D.C. resident, put it in talking to the Washington Post, “A lot of the blacks are having to move because they can’t afford to stay here. These are people who have owned their own homes but have had to leave because the taxes are going up. The affluent is coming in, and the have-nots are moving out, and it’s not right.”
Renters beholden to the private market are also displaced, not by “cashing out”, but by being priced out. So the face of a neighborhood changes as the door is shut and locked behind them, likely much quicker if you add The Whole Foods Effect.
Does Hyde Square want to live through the Whole Foods Effect much like Ward 2? What does Hyde Square want to look like in 10 years?
The Jamaica Plain Effect
As the shadow of Whole Foods blankets Boston’s Latin Quarter, the corporation is seeing something they’ve probably never seen before – a very large and well-organized group of neighbors rising out of their armchairs, shutting their laptops, sweeping up their children and gathering at public rallies and forums, demanding an affordable and diverse Jamaica Plain without Whole Foods. They’ve launched a campaign called “Whose Foods?”, collected hundreds of petition signatures, spoken out to the Neighborhood Council, produced four videos, garnered the attention of major papers and blogs, gathered over 400 Facebook fans, written letters-to-editors, and created a bilingual Web site that even nay-sayers are calling “very slick” — all in a handful of weeks.
I imagine that Whole Foods assumed Hyde Square would give ground in much the same way as Ward 2. But Jamaica Plainers are unusual – not only have residents here successfully kept out Dominos, Jack-in-the-Box, K-Mart, and a state highway, but there are also some truly meaningful and rich ties between neighbors across race and class that have quickly woven a network of resistance. This is the Jamaica Plain Effect – the impact of a powerful, loving, grassroots community taking ownership of itself.
I stand with everyone who is opposed to a Whole Foods in Hyde Square. With hope and faith, I ask my neighbors to join me.
CoLab Radio received this letter in an email forwarded to the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planing email list by Mel King, a long-time Boston activist and founder of the MIT Mel King Community Fellows Program, and republished it in collaboration with Helen Matthews. CoLab Radio is a platform for the voices of those engaged in improving communities. This site does not endorse any particular view point or ideology. Rather, CoLab Radio endorses the proliferation of ideas related to Urban Planning.