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Debate still simmers on JP gentrification

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Debate still simmers on JP gentrification
Centre Street has long been a commercial hub of the city’s Latino community, but businesses catering to Latinos are being squeezed out by rent increases, as are many of the neighborhood’s Latino and black residents. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

The announcement of a new Whole Foods Market location in Jamaica Plain earlier this year has stoked a simmering debate over gentrification and development in the rapidly changing Boston neighborhood.

The economic displacement of the neighborhood’s largely low-income Latino and African American residents has been a hot topic in the Jamaica Plain Gazette, on Facebook and other online forums. Last week the Jamaica Plain Forum, a community-based lecture series, held a discussion on gentrification.

The demographic shift in Jamaica Plain over the last 10 years registers as a few percentage points in the US Census data. The white percentage of the population increased from 49.9 percent to 53.8 percent, effectively halting a decades-long decline. At the same time, the Latino population dropped from 27.5 percent to 25.3 percent and the black population dropped from 15.5 percent to 13.4 percent.

At first glance, the departure of 1,041 Latinos and 862 blacks may not seem like much of a change in a neighborhood of 37,000 residents. But for some Latino residents of the neighborhood, the changes have been quite palpable.

“The numbers are alarming to me,” says Norma Rey-Alicea, a work force development and education specialist who grew up in Jamaica Plain.

Rey-Alicea says she has seen many of the low-income people she grew up with — Latinos, blacks and whites — leave the neighborhood as rents and real estate prices have climbed.

“I can put names on those numbers,” she says. “It’s part of the reason I’ve been very vocal in my opposition to Whole Foods. Whole Foods is a symbol of the acceleration of gentrification in Jamaica Plain.”

Rising commercial rents are displacing business owned by and catering to whites as well. The Milky Way lounge, a venue that included a bowling alley and dance club, was forced out of Hyde Square two years ago after the landlord doubled its rent.

A laundromat, a botanica and clothing store have closed in recent years, all within a block of each other on Centre Street, the main thoroughfare that for years has served as the commercial center of the city’s Latino population.

“A lot of the stores catering to low-income people have closed and a lot of Latino families have left,” says Martha Rodriguez, a community activist who came to the neighborhood from Venezuela 14 years ago when she was 11. “I remember walking down the street in the summer as a teenager. It felt like home. Everybody was outside. Everybody spoke Spanish.”

The Whole Foods debate

Rodriguez says she didn’t connect the changes she saw in the neighborhood to the concept of gentrification until she learned about the Whole Foods store that is replacing the Hi Lo Market in Hyde Square.

“Now it makes more sense to me what is happening,” she says. “I don’t want people to think I’m just blaming the supermarket, but now that it’s coming, a lot more people are paying attention to it.”

With an active protest movement and often vitriolic exchanges in community meetings and on social media, it’s hard to ignore the issue of gentrification. Anti-Whole Foods protesters have traded accusations of racism and classism with the organized pro-Whole Foods contingent, some of whom have suggested that the grocery chain will compel Latino families to eat more healthy food.

Rey-Alicea says some pro-Whole Foods activists are celebrating the displacement of Latinos.

“One woman said, ‘I say welcome to all the new people who are coming to Jamaica Plain and making it a safer, cleaner, quieter place,’ ” she quotes. “There are definitely a lot of value judgments that are being surfaced in this debate that come off as patronizing.”

Rey-Alicea isn’t the only one to notice.

Hyde Square Task Force Executive Director Claudio Martinez blasted the anti-Whole Foods activists for what he said were “paternalistic and condescending attitudes” toward Latinos, but drew fire from white pro-Whole Foods supporters.

“As ugly as this debate has gotten, it’s good that this stuff has surfaced,” Rey-Alicea comments.

Putting displacement in context

The displacement of people of color seen in Jamaica Plain is one of the hallmarks of gentrification UMass Boston professor Michael Stone identified in his address at the Forum’s discussion of gentrification last week. Others include large rent increases, the conversion of residential and non-residential units into luxury units and improvements to amenities in the neighborhood.

So far, the South End stands out as one of the best examples in Boston. There, buildings that housed schools and churches blacks and Latinos attended in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now luxury condos. Most of the blacks and Latinos who remain there live in the neighborhood’s many subsidized housing developments — the Villa Victoria, Cathedral, Tent City.

Jamaica Plain may not be far behind. In the early ‘70s, blocks of housing were demolished to make way for the extension of Interstate 95 through the center of the city, a development that activists in Roxbury, the South End and Jamaica Plain ultimately stopped with a well-coordinated protest movement.

By 1987, when the Orange Line relocated to the Southwest Corridor, groups like the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation were helping to revitalize the area with new housing, commercial development and other amenities. Coupled with the new access to rapid transit, these efforts made the neighborhood a desirable urban destination. Real estate prices and rents began increasing.

Many point to the rising real estate costs as the major reason the black and Latino population is declining in Jamaica Plain and increasing in neighborhoods like Hyde Park, where blacks now constitute 47 percent of the population and Latinos 19 percent.

If the current trends continue, Jamaica Plain could go the way of the South End, with its vast income disparities between families living in Section 8-funded developments and professionals living in $2 million duplex condos.

On the website, the median sales price for a single family home in Jamaica Plain is a staggering $817,000. By contrast, the average sales price for a home in Dorchester listed on the website is $320,000.

“When I moved into Jamaica Plain in 1980, I paid $60,000 for my house,” says Puerto Rican community activist Jaime Rodriguez, who retired two years ago from his job as research coordinator for the Joiner Center at UMass Boston. “Now you’d have to pay five times that.”

Fighting displacement

Although gentrification has long been an issue in Jamaica Plain, residents there have been working to keep the neighborhood affordable for decades. Leslie Bos, president of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC), noted that her nonprofit has built more than 600 units of affordable housing.

But Bos says it’s now impossible for the NDC to compete with for-profit developers to develop on privately-owned land and competition for public parcels like the Arborway Yard and Jackson Square is tight.

“There’s a limited amount we can do,” she said, speaking at the JP Forum.

On the rental side, City Life/Vida Urbana has helped tenants fight large rent increases by organizing tenant unions that can employ collective bargaining with property owners. The organization also helps homeowners fight foreclosure evictions with blockades.

The work is most challenging in the group’s Jamaica Plain base, according to organizer Steve Meacham.

“The goal of a stable working class community and the goal of real estate profit are completely antithetical to each other,” he said, speaking at the forum. “You can’t have one and the other.”