Yvonne Abraham

Whole truth isn’t simple

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / February 10, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

If only the story of Jamaica Plain’s Hi Lo supermarket being replaced by a Whole Foods were the simple tale of good vs. evil that some would have you believe.

But let’s be real — it’s not. You only had to stop by the airy atrium at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Roxbury yesterday to see. There, you would have found some of the people getting lost in the uproar over the pricey green giant moving into Hyde Square: the employees who are out of work now that Hi Lo is history.

They were sitting on blue plastic chairs waiting to be interviewed for jobs at the store some residents claim will steal Jamaica Plain’s soul.

But Hi Lo isn’t all saint, and Whole Foods isn’t all sinner.

For one thing, some of the workers complain that Hi Lo let them go with little notice and no guidance on unemployment insurance or paths to other jobs. City officials trying to make up for those lapses say Hi Lo managers didn’t help them.

“Other than a lockout, this is as bad as it gets,’’ said Conny Doty, director of the mayor’s office of jobs and community services.

Hi Lo owner Stephen Knapp said he has responded to all city requests he knew about. One woman at the job fair yesterday said her boss at Hi Lo had sent her over on company time. And to be fair, the 47-year-old market was a pretty good place to work.

“Hi Lo had a heart,’’ Christine Arias said, even though she’s angry at how she was let go. She worked there for 24 years, and got $12.45 an hour, health insurance, and profit sharing.

Despite the fact that Whole Foods is a huge corporation, with leadership that has taken some awful public policy positions (opposing health care reform, for example), it is also a great place to work.

Pay starts at $10 an hour, with benefits and free ESL classes. Whole Foods says it’s bringing 100 jobs to Hyde Square — a corner of a great neighborhood long-beset by vacant storefronts. And it’s interviewing former Hi Lo employees.

But it’s also bringing to town the quintessence of yuppiedom.

At a community meeting Tuesday night, speakers called on locals to boycott the new store, saying the arrival of the chain would push ordinary folks from the neighborhood.

They’re right that Whole Foods is the ultimate symbol and symptom of gentrification. But it’s not gentrification itself. In case anybody missed the lines for espresso and Prosciutto di Parma sandwiches at City Feed, JP is already yuppie heaven.

Whole Foods isn’t making a hostile takeover here. Hi Lo’s Newton owners invited them in. Whole Foods doesn’t manufacture demand. It moves into places where high incomes, and the appetite for its products, already exist.

People worry that Whole Foods will replace the canela and sour oranges that made Hi Lo a mecca with goat’s milk gouda and organic truffles. They’re justly concerned that closing the store might push Latino shoppers out of the neighborhood.

Though Whole Foods has promised to stock Latino products, the city isn’t taking its word for it. A mayoral aide has met with owners of eight nearby bodegas, urging them to fill the gap.

“Usually, we work with the small businesses to help them survive a larger operation coming into the neighborhood,’’ said Tony Barros, assistant to the mayor. “This time it’s the opposite. A large business is going, giving opportunities to smaller businesses.’’

How great it would be if that worked.

I wish Hi Lo could thrive for another 47 years. I wish working class residents and minorities weren’t being priced out of Jamaica Plain. I wish the healthy fare Whole Foods sells wasn’t crazy expensive.

But boycotting the new store isn’t going to make any of those wishes come true. They were denied long ago.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at