Yvonne Abraham

Turmoil, Aisle 12

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 12, 2011

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Enough already.

When last we left Hyde Square in Jamaica Plain, it seemed like the battle over the incoming Whole Foods could only get less ugly.

Four months later, the war goes on. And opponents have managed to summon even higher dudgeon, which hardly seemed possible.

They shouted down Whole Foods officials at a question and answer session at the Curley School this month, demanding to know what the company will do about gentrification. Police fanned the flames by ending the meeting early, saying the protesters posed a safety risk.

Then last week, two members quit the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s committee reporting on the impact of the new store, saying the council was determined to see things in the worst possible light.

And as recently as Friday, leading opponent Martha Rodriguez cast the battle in ethnic terms, telling Jamaica Plain Patch, “As a Latina, I feel that we are slowly being kicked out of the neighborhood.’’

Oh, the histrionic wonder of it all.

Whole Foods is replacing the old Hi Lo supermarket — an institution that quickly grew more beloved after its owners chose to get out of the Latino provisions business and invite the organic behemoth in.

Some elected officials have tried to smooth neighborhood divisions. Others have helped harden them. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz — whom I like and agree with often — demanded that Whole Foods establish an affordable housing fund or stay out of JP.

This was not helpful. If it’s right to demand an affordable housing fund from Whole Foods, why shouldn’t she demand it from Ten Tables, or City Feed? Why shouldn’t the recently opened Canary Square and Tres Gatos kick in, too? They’re all contributing to — and profiting from — gentrification in JP, a process that began decades ago.

When I spoke with Chang-Díaz on Friday, she said she wasn’t wedded to the idea of a Whole Foods affordable housing fund, which is good news. “I wanted to broaden the debate to get at how we do development without displacement,’’ she said. “I do not see Whole Foods as the villain in this story.’’

And I don’t see them as the hero. Local businesses are usually better for communities. But Whole Foods is trying to do things right here. Of the 45 workers Hi Lo let go, Whole Foods hired 13 to work at other stores. A few more declined job offers, and others are holding out for work at the JP location. Whole Foods has contributed thousands to JP community groups over the years. It has also promised to stock Hi Lo staples.

But really, nobody’s going to get anywhere focusing solely on Whole Foods. Just ask JP resident Ben Forman, research director at nonpartisan think tank MassINC, and an expert on what makes cities tick. Whole Foods will help drive up property values in the neighborhood, he says. But there’s a bigger driver nearby: Longwood Medical Area.

“This is real estate economics 101,’’ Forman says. “What drives property values is employment, wages, and good commute times.’’ Longwood workers living near Hyde Square enjoy all three.

And if locals want villains, Forman says, how about real estate speculators? People aren’t automatically displaced when property values go up: Developers throw them out, converting affordable rentals to condos.

Right now, Boston requires developers of properties with 10 or more units to set aside 10 percent as affordable, or contribute to the city’s affordable housing fund. The Whole Foods opponents could do a world of lasting good by pushing the city to demand the same from those who develop three-deckers.

The construction workers’ tools whirr at the old Hi Lo. Whole Foods is coming. It’s time to stop the divisive rhetoric and grandstanding, and do something constructive.

But that’s more difficult, and a lot less fun, than railing against a faceless corporation.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist.

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