Editorial: Rattling the chains

JP debating the arrival of a multinational chain store is nothing new. But in the ever-speeding Manhattan-ization of Boston, the context is now different, and it may well be that such chains are here to stay.

The wild gentrification of local housing gets a lot of attention, but it also spurs commercial gentrification. As storefront rents skyrocket, huge chains are among the few businesses that can absorb the costs, and are attractively safe bets to landlords.

Meanwhile, a housing market built on attracting well-off renters and short-term condo owners provides customers with money to spend, but not necessarily a “buy local” ethos. Many people simply want to patronize cool, well-run businesses, whether they are locally owned or not.

JP residents have driven chains out of the neighborhood before and probably will again, but there are important nuances involved. The torches and pitchforks come out in unison for blue-collar-oriented businesses like Domino’s and Family Dollar, in part because they are seen as uncool and damaging to property values.

But the landmark arrival of Whole Foods in Hyde Square in 2011 drew a divided response. The up-market, undeniably trendy store found many local fans and opened to a full house. It’s now a fixture of JP. We suspect Caffè Nero has a similar fanbase.

JP retains an amazing base of independent local businesses. But of course, the local indie business scene itself has shifted to increasingly orient toward a higher-income demographic. And gentrification, which practically eats irony for breakfast, is partly fueled by the attraction of those very businesses, which then become threatened by it.

JP has long been extraordinarily aware and savvy about the impacts of gentrification and the importance of small, local businesses. The neighborhood has many impressive success stories in places like Jackson Square. The unity of central JP business groups against Caffè Nero is striking. The assertion that community and sustainability are equal values with profitability is laudable.

But will most of JP agree to oppose this particular chain? Are JP and all of Boston already past a tipping point where multinational chains are a big chunk of our commercial future no matter what?

Time, bottom-line numbers and a good old-fashioned JP debate will tell.

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