In December, Denise Hogan wandered over to her neighborhood Walgreens pharmacy on Warren Street for her prescription medications, as she has countless times before. She left with unexpected, unfortunate news: the store is closing.
“It was like a bomb dropped on you,” the Roxbury resident recalled.
That pharmacy is slated to close by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and is the fourth Walgreens to close in a predominantly Black and Latino Boston neighborhood in just over a year. In late 2022, the drugstore giant shut pharmacies in Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Lower Roxbury.
In many cases, longtime customers learned of the coming closures only after they encountered barren shelves, and thought enough to ask why.
Residents say they depend on their neighborhood pharmacies for their medical needs, household items, and even last-minute groceries. They also see the closures as part of a series of changes and developments that have altered the fabric of their neighborhood, with new businesses replacing old, trusted ones. And what’s worse for residents — many feel there’s not much they can do about it.
“For communities of color, when a pharmacy is lost, they’re losing access to health care,” said Domonique Williams, a Roxbury native whose three grandparents use the store. “We’re not talking about clothes or sneakers. We’re talking blood pressure medication and diabetic strips.”
In a statement, Walgreens said it weighs a variety of factors when deciding to close a location, including “our existing footprint of stores, dynamics of the local market, and changes in the buying habits of our patients and customers.” Current customers of the Warren Street store will have their prescriptions automatically transferred to Walgreens’s Columbus Avenue store, about a 20 minute walk away in Roxbury, the statement said.
“With Walgreens’s goal to be the independent partner of choice, not just in pharmacy but also in healthcare services where we can improve healthcare, lower costs, and help patients, we need the right network of stores,” the company said.
Walgreens has 18 stores in Boston, including one that sells specialty drugs and a branch in Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. But the only stores Walgreens has closed in Boston in recent years have been in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. Overall, there are more than 100 pharmacies in Boston, according to state data.
According to census figures, the neighborhood surrounding the Warren Street store is nearly half Black, and one-third Hispanic. Residents age 65 and over make up 15 percent of the population. More than 30 percent of households live below the poverty line.
Other than the Walgreens on Columbus Avenue, the closest pharmacy to the Warren Street store is a CVS in Grove Hall, a 15-minute walk, according to city records. There are also four other retail pharmacies, not owned by Walgreens, that are about a 20-minute walk away. Two other Walgreens are at least 40 minutes away by foot.
Statewide, Walgreens has 224 of the 1,100 retail pharmacies in Massachusetts. Since 2022, 58 pharmacies have closed in Massachusetts, one-third being Walgreens stores. It was not immediately clear if new pharmacies have opened where others closed.
In Roxbury, some residents say they will continue to fight off the closure of their neighborhood store. The Communities of Color for Health Equity, a grass-roots group of residents led by the Rev. Miniard Culpepper of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church and Prophetic Resistance Boston, delivered a letter to Walgreens’s district office in Marlborough Tuesday seeking to halt the closure. They plan to bring their concerns to the pharmacy’s Chicago headquarters if they feel they are unheard.
City and state officials have also joined in the effort. Last year, City Councilors Tania Fernandes Anderson and Brian Worrell filed a resolution calling for Walgreens to postpone both closures and openings of new pharmacies in Boston until further notice, so the council could have an opportunity to weigh in.
The resolution stalled in a committee, but Fernandes Anderson, who represents Roxbury, said she plans to soon file a request for a hearing to collect community concerns and get answers from the drugstore.
“Walgreens is sending communities of color to other locations without understanding the ramifications,” Fernandes Anderson said. “We’re not going to let corporations go in and out of the city and treat the residents of Boston this way.”
State Representative Christopher Worrell, who also represents the area and sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, said lawmakers are considering ways to respond to the fallout, such as expediting online and home delivery resources for Roxbury residents.
Nonetheless, it’ll take the neighborhood some time to recover from the loss, Worrell said. In a community where skepticism of health care is rampant, relocating to a new pharmacy and acclimating to a new team of workers can be a challenge.
“Black families are comfortable with what they know, and they’ve probably had families going to that Walgreens for at least three generations,” Worrell said. “Now, three generations of families have to uproot and go somewhere else.”
Such a generational impact is felt by Roxbury residents like Lucille Culpepper-Jones, who first visited the store decades ago to grab baby formula for her daughter, who’s now in her 30s. Now, Culpepper-Jones is protesting to keep the store open.
Culpepper-Jones said the loss of the store will affect more than just health care; it’s one less accessible place to get a few groceries, or a surprise gift when the paycheck arrives, for a community where transportation can often be difficult.
“It’s not just medicine,” Culpepper-Jones said. “It’s those things that you need that you couldn’t get during the week, or whenever because you didn’t have money at the time.”
She said she doesn’t see herself visiting the Columbus Avenue drugstore, because she doesn’t feel safe walking there alone.
Alma Wright, a former Boston Public Schools teacher and nearby resident, said the closure is only the latest loss of health care resources for the neighborhood. When Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center closed in 2013, residents flocked to Walgreens for their medical needs. Residents can travel to Whittier Street Health Center and Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, but most will have to ride a bus.
When the Walgreens closes, “it’s going to have a big impact,” she said.
Worrell, the state representative, said a number of local business owners have reached out to him to inquire about the upcoming vacancy on Warren Street, though some residents have whispered that a grocery store may take over the location.
On a frigid Saturday afternoon, more than 30 customers, clergy, and elected officials gathered outside the drugstore to protest its approaching closure, waving white signs reading “Hell no, Walgreens.” From the inside, the store looked as if it had closed already. Shelves that once held toothpaste and toothbrushes stood empty. A pharmacist sorted through what little bandage care remained, trying to find one to recommend to a customer.
Steps from the motion-sensing front doors, a sign read: “Store closing January 15, 2024 . . . Questions? Talk to the pharmacist today.”