In the modern evolution of Charlestown — as young professionals have ingrained themselves alongside the natives who are proud to call themselves “Townies” — the arrival of a Whole Foods Market may be more than just a milestone. It may be a tipping point.
It’s not just the fact that the high-end symbol of yuppie America is coming to town; it’s that it will be the only supermarket in the neighborhood, replacing Johnnie’s Foodmaster.
Johnnie’s has been the Townies’ supermarket since before there were Toonies — long the locals’ nickname for the young professionals who first began crossing the bridges to Charlestown in the 1980s, drawn by the historic housing stock, the proximity to the Financial District, and the neighborhood feel that their very presence would begin to change.
And with Whole Foods comes the question of whether Charlestown, a neighborhood that still has two bars called Sully’s, has finally tipped to a point where the Townies are the minority.
“There’s major grumbling,” said Bob Powers, a local historian who, like many on either side of the Townie/Toonie divide, is very concerned about the shift. “People feel robbed. Not only for the supermarket, but this piece of the neighborhood, which was also the main meeting spot for the community. But I don’t think that many middle- and lower-income families will be able to afford Whole Foods’ prices. It is clearly tailored to our newly adopted residents.”
The tilt to high-end groceries comes with all sorts of issues, and chief among them for Charlestown is that it essentially reverses the travel burden from Toonies to Townies. Many Toonies have long complained that they needed to travel to Cambridge or Beacon Hill for “gourmet” groceries; now the Townies are complaining they will have to do the same to get “regular” groceries.
“The newcomers have cars and money and can drive to a Whole Foods if that’s what they want,” said Karen Gentis, who is still definitely a Toonie, even though she moved to Charlestown in 1990. “And the newcomers understand this, so a lot of us feel that this move does not really support the whole community, especially seniors and the people who don’t have cars. They need access to what they want to eat, not what they are told they should eat.”
The transition to Whole Foods in Charlestown is part of the closing of the entire 10-store Johnnie’s Foodmaster chain. Six of the locations, in Charlestown, South Weymouth, Arlington, Brookline, Melrose, and Beacon Street in Somerville, will become Whole Foods. A Medford location will become a Stop & Shop.
At the Bunker Hill Shopping Center recently, where Johnnie’s replaced an A&P in the late ’70s, the locals who hang out on benches in the corner were grumbling about the changes that were coming. There was concern about the Johnnie’s employees, mostly locals. Johnnie’s was a big employer of persons with disabilities. A Whole Foods spokesperson said they have already extended job offers to several former Johnnie’s employees. Some will begin work at other Whole Foods Markets during renovations, while others chose to wait until the Charlestown location opens. Some declined the job offer, while others were not offered employment with the Texas-based chain.
The year without a grocery store of any kind also led to calls for Whole Foods to provide shuttle service to other grocery stores, such as the Market Basket in Chelsea, during the construction period. An online petition collected over 300 signatures. Whole Foods has begun offering twice-weekly shuttle service from Charlestown and the North End to the Whole Foods location on Beacon Hill.
“Every community needs a local grocery store, and Johnnie’s has been a good fit for the mix of socioeconomic backgrounds in the neighborhood,” said Gretchen Belknap, who moved to Charlestown five years ago and said she was devastated to learn that Johnnie’s was closing. “I would imagine that only 10 or 15 percent of the Toonies or yuppies or whatever you want to call them shop at Whole Foods on a regular basis.”
Many also wondered whether the Whole Foods traffic would overwhelm the shopping center, which also houses a Papa Gino’s, CVS, Dunkin Donuts, pet store for “yuppie puppies,” hardware store, bank, dentist, the post office for the square-mile neighborhood, and a Ninety-Nine Restaurant.
Johnnie’s, it was pointed out, was just the right size for the spot, which has lots of foot traffic coming from Main Street and the Orange Line stop a block away at Bunker Hill Community College.
The old game of trying to determine the Townie/Toonie ratio in the neighborhood has been given new life by the Whole Foods announcement, but among the crew smoking and drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on the benches in the corner, the ones who can and do wear the Townies sweatshirts, the giant closing signs in Johnnie’s windows were not a sign in their favor. This would drive up property values, they said. They didn’t mean this in a good way.
Inside, as the market moved toward its final hours — it closed the weekend before Thanksgiving — the shelves looked like a bad set of teeth, revealing the lived-in bones of the place: tired, authentic, like an old dive bar.
In its place will soon be an anchor for the new Charlestown, a neighborhood where Whole Foods is the only supermarket, but there are still two bars called Sully’s.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a portion of an earlier version of this story contained outdated information. Whole Foods has begun offering a twice-weekly free shuttle service from Charlestown and the North End to the Whole Foods Market on Beacon Hill while the Charlestown location is under construction. Also, Whole Foods has already extended job offers to several former Johnnie’s employees, including some who will begin work at other Whole Foods Markets while the Charlestown location is under construction. According to Whole Foods, some former employees declined the employment offer while others chose to wait until the Charlestown location opens. Others were not offered employment with Whole Foods.