THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A market goes upscale, as does Jamaica Plain itself

End of an era for Latino grocery

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By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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For Jamaica Plain’s eclectic mix of hipsters, affluent professionals, and working-class Latinos, there has been no starker symbol of transformation in their neighborhood than the one announced yesterday: The tumble-down Latino grocery Hi-Lo Foods will close its doors and reopen as a sparkling new Whole Foods Market.

Sitting on an axis of JP’s main drag where the neighborhood’s growing affluence meets a stretch of bodegas, restaurants, and hair salons once thought of as Boston’s Latin Quarter, the Hi-Lo is a hub of the Latino community. Men sit on milk crates speaking in Spanish while shoppers pick among crowded aisles of dried chiles and tropical produce.

But in recent years, the neighborhood has been getting richer and whiter. The percentage of households making more than $75,000 a year has nearly doubled since the 2000 census, as the proportion of Latino and Hispanic residents has declined from almost 28 percent to about 20 percent.

The arrival of the nation’s best known and often the priciest purveyor of organic foods was seen all over the neighborhood this week as a sign of an inexorable shift.

“There is a symbolic effect that is profound right now,’’ said state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, who added that the soaring rents, high condo prices, and the closing of a neighborhood school that serves Latino children have forced many from the neighborhood. “What I am hearing from people is, ‘What happens to us as a community now?’ ’’

Along with worries, however, the announcement was also greeted with elation by residents who have longed for a high-quality market within easy walking distance.

“It’s complicated,’’ said Robyn Farmer, who lives nearby. “I like Hi-Lo, even though I didn’t shop there often. But I would love a Whole Foods.’’

Yesterday, metal shelves once filled with yams, plantains, and everything from Puerto Rican cookies to dried chiles from Mexico and Peru, were sparse as the store sold off its stock. The store’s 45 employees said they face an uncertain future.

“Right now I feel better, but I spent the weekend crying,’’ said head cashier Maria Chacon, who said the company’s president gathered the store’s department heads in the Hi-Lo meat room on Thursday to tell them the news. “I’ve been here for 15 years. I met my husband here. . . . This is my second home. People here have been here for 30 years. This sucks that they have treated us this way.’’

Whole Foods said it plans to employ 100 people from the community, though it remains unclear whether any of the Hi-Lo employees will be among them. The company said that, as is its practice, the new store will do some things to conform to the surrounding community and will stock a variety of good-quality products that meet its shoppers’ needs.

“Whole Foods Market has been keenly interested in developing a Jamaica Plain location,’’ Laura Derba, regional president of Whole Foods Market’s North Atlantic division, said in a statement. “We are now eager to become active members of such a strong, diverse neighborhood and to open a store that is reflective of that vibrant community.’’

Stephen Knapp, the president of Knapp Foods Inc. of Newton, which owns Hi-Lo, said Whole Foods will be a positive addition to Jamaica Plain. He declined to describe the Latin market’s financial condition. He said the company’s decision to close the store was based on a management team with some members edging into their 70s.

“It came down to the age of the management team,’’ said Knapp. “We felt that this was a good time to look for a company that can carry on the mission of serving the community. We felt that this was a good fit.’’

Across Jamaica Plain, news of the Whole Foods arrival stunned residents, causing many to wonder about the direction of the neighborhood. But even as the debate swirled, residents seemed perplexed or divided over the Whole Foods move.

Robbie Samuels, 36, wondered whether a Whole Foods would signal a change that he can live with.

“I came to JP because it was racially diverse, gay friendly, and it had culture,’’ he said. “The question is whether people value that.’’

Newly elected Councilor Matt O’Malley said the Whole Foods situation is an anomaly because the owner of Hi-Lo is not shutting the store, simply renting it.

He said he plans to meet with Hi-Lo and Whole Foods officials soon to discuss how to retain the employees who have lost their jobs, as well as the Latin-American offerings at the new store.

“I want to make sure the cultural competency exists,’’ said O’Malley. “Hi-Lo has offered a strong product line of Latino foods, and I want to make sure that continues. But ultimately I think this might be a good thing for the neighborhood. We need a strong anchor store in Hyde Square.’’

Along Centre Street yesterday, reaction was mixed. David Warner — co-owner of City Feed and Supply, a small market with a sandwich counter — worried about competing.

“This is going to be a big hit to our business,’’ said Warner. “Grocery sales is more than 50 percent of our revenue, and we can’t compete with Whole Foods.’’

Mike St. Clair, the Cambridge-based general manager of Harvest Co-op, a small neighborhood grocery, said his company has weathered this storm before in Boston and Cambridge, and he is not worried that he will lose business.

“It’s not a threat,’’ said St. Clair. “We’ve been given these types of opportunities in the past, and we’ve survived them.’’

Bodega owners welcomed the Whole Foods, saying the addition of a bigger store might drive up business in their corner stores.

“It’s vice versa,’’ said Freddy Cabral, the long-time owner of Freddy’s Market. “People who go there will look for special foods, and if they don’t have it, they will come here.’’

But residents who walk or take the bus to shop at Hi-Lo say Whole Foods is far out of their price range, and many said they will have to travel to Hyde Park or Roxbury to get foods from their homelands.

“We won’t be able to afford to go there,’’ said Ramona Gonzalez, pushing her grocery cart in the rain. “I’m not being prejudiced or anything, but I think they just don’t want us Spanish people hanging around here.’’

Maria Rodriguez, a longtime shopper, said she feels as though no one is considering the poorer Latinos who live in apartments or houses near the supermarket.

“They don’t take into consideration that this is a low-income community,’’ she said.

But many in Hyde Square were left with a feeling of profound loss and struggled to make sense of it all.

“When the Hi-Lo goes,’’ said Oscar Guerrero, “the soul will be taken from the heart of this community.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.