Whole Foods Harlem: Beginning of the End?

By Miles Marshall Lewis

This Friday, Whole Foods Harlem turns two weeks old. Rather than rush to a snap judgment over the upscale supermarket’s arrival uptown, I chose to let its presence sink in for a bit before deciding how I really felt. Unpacking my thoughts like a recyclable grocery bag isn’t so easy, because the reality of a 125th Street Whole Foods is complicated. Some feel it’s a doomsday harbinger of things to come, re: rising property rates and further gentrification. Others predict the shuttering of other local supermarkets, leaving the expensive chain as an only choice outside the price range of many Harlemites.

All year, my reaction to “How do you feel about Whole Foods coming to Harlem?” was incredulousness at the question being posed in the first place. Since the megastore opened at Columbus Circle in February 2004, Harlem neighbors have been schlepping grocery bags uptown; we’re not new to Whole Foods, or to natural and organic eating. We’ve ridden the 1-2-3, A-B-C-D subway lines with booty from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods for over a decade, not to mention Fairway over by the West Side Highway. Those who can afford it have been importing their groceries for quite a while, at least for choice items unavailable at the Foodtowns and Key Foods of Harlem.

So the heart of the question comes to light: will Whole Foods lead to the further forcing out of African Americans in Harlem? We’ve all heard the organic grocer derisively referred to as Whole Paycheck. The supermarket most of all serves those who can buy their overpriced groceries, which could lead to more well-to-do non-blacks migrating to the neighborhood to shop and live. Harlem gets more attractive to those outside its longstanding community with every new coffee shop, wine bar and upscale eatery that opens. Rising rents (justified by amenities like a nearby Whole Foods) demonstrably lead to less people of color in the neighborhood over time.

I believe in black resilience. Personally, a supermarket causing the erasure or displacement of African Americans in Harlem is something hard for me to take too seriously. Hundreds of open Whole Foods jobs were filled by native Uptown residents, something to be thankful for. As a one-time vegetarian, I’ve got the general health of the community in mind too when I think of all the organic food void of artificial preservatives and such now readily available as close as 125th Street. Don’t we deserve to eat as healthy as other Manhattan residents?

And yet in the final evaluation, whether Whole Foods is a danger or not turns on the question of money. The greater doomsday scenario of Harlem transforming into a majority white community boils down to who can afford to live here. Middle-class and affluent African Americans do (quite obviously) exist, and will continue to populate the brownstones and condos of Harlem as the area slowly continues to gentrify over the next decade. Call me optimistic, but we ain’t going nowhere. It’s Harlem’s poorer residents who, priced out of Harlem, will suffer displacement to further uptown in Washington Heights, Inwood, the Bronx and outside of the city completely, reverse-migrating down south to the Carolinas and elsewhere. Plenty of evidence exists for revamping New York City exclusively for the rich, and Harlem, unfortunately, falls within that grand scheme. But I’m still not pessimistic enough to believe that Whole Foods represents a tipping point.

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