Researcher: Whole Foods ‘decimated’ JP Latino culture

An upcoming academic study on Whole Foods Market’s impact on Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square will report that the upscale grocer’s arrival “decimated” the Latino community’s “cultural ecology,” its lead researcher told the Gazette.

The sociology study, titled “Gentrification and Representation: Hi-Lo, Whole Foods and Latinos in Jamaica Plain,” is being conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. Hyde Square resident and sociologist Dr. Glenn Jacobs is the principal investigator.

“The objective was to look into the controversy around Whole Foods opening in Hyde Square. We wanted to find out how Latinos themselves saw this and deal with the issue of how Latino interests have been depicted,” Jacobs told the Gazette.

Whole Foods replaced a Latino-oriented market called Hi-Lo at 413 Centre St. in 2011 following Hi-Lo’s closure. While supported by many residents, the move also drew criticism and protests about speeding up the pace of gentrification in what is known as Boston’s Latin Quarter for its large, mostly lower-income Latino population and cultural institutions.

According to Jacobs, “The removal of Hi-Lo really represented a decimation of the cultural ecology in Hyde Square.”

“It wasn’t simply that [Whole Foods] didn’t sell what [Latinos] bought, but language was a factor,” Jacobs said. “The items might’ve been there, but maybe not in a way that they could recognize.”

He explained that many Latino shoppers hung around Hi-Lo, visiting with neighbors and talking. Hi-Lo’s variety and price point was also hard to duplicate, driving many shoppers to do their groceries elsewhere.

Whole Foods “is not simpatico. It’s not a place that feels welcoming, congenial, to folks of a certain background. Not to mention, it’s high-priced,” he said.

Jacobs also noted that real estate agents now advertise Whole Foods’ proximity to their listings as a perk to potential clients.

“Who is this a selling point to?” Jacobs asked, answering his own question with, “People with means. Not Latinos.”

And while gentrification around Hyde Square isn’t Whole Foods’ fault, it certainly has a “catalytic effect” on it, Jacobs said,

“Gentrification started here before Whole Foods came. But Whole Foods is an important ingredient in that,” he said. “What it does represent is the erosion of the Latino folks in the Hyde Square area.”

Citing a recent doctoral thesis written by JP resident Jenn Douglass, Jacobs said that there has been a 13 percent reduction of Latinos in Hyde Square over the last decade. U.S. Census results have shown similar findings.

The study is currently being written and will be released “soon,” Jacobs said. Jacobs and his collaborators will present it to UMass before releasing it publicly.

He stressed that it was a “modest study” without a lot of funding. He plans to use it as a basis for a larger, more intensive study in the future.

Gazette Editor John Ruch was among the local leaders interviewed by researchers for the study.

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