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Is Starbucks near Mattapan a harbinger of change?

Some residents worry chain portends gentrification

Alexyss Lopez
Is Starbucks near Mattapan a harbinger of change?
The Starbucks on River Street in Hyde Park. BANNER PHOTO

The rush for coffee began early one recent morning at the new Starbucks in the Shops at Riverwood strip mall, where drivers snaked through the drive-thru.

High schoolers from nearby mingled outside. An elderly couple took photographs upon entry of the mural that can’t go unnoticed. And a first responder, still in uniform, picked up her order.

A sign inside the cafe reads: “This community store is dedicated to this neighborhood.”

Since its opening in May, the famous coffeehouse chain has become part of the rhythm of the neighborhood. It’s located at the Hyde Park-Mattapan border. And this side of the city has never seen anything like it.

“(The) coffee is good. I get it almost every morning,” said Yousef Yash, a Mattapan resident, as he waited in the drive-thru one recent morning.

But the idea of a Starbucks operating in this part of the city — home to taxi drivers, school teachers and government workers — caused rumblings in Mattapan and Hyde Park among some residents who say the major chain is a precursor to higher rents and housing prices in two of the city’s most affordable neighborhoods.

“Y’all, they’re putting a Starbucks in on River Street in Mattapan, it’s over for us now,” posted resident Arielle Gray in a tweet after the city approved the Starbucks’ opening in spring.

Some residents noted the new housing being built near the train tracks in Mattapan Square and businesses opening, including the nonprofit community Daily Table store, as signs that their neighborhood is changing.

The changes are long overdue, some residents said. But others say they are worrisome, too.

“If you are a business owner, you should be concerned about what it costs to rent a business or a home,” said Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council. “I get calls from Black and brown business owners, and they have a tough time renting spaces.”

Starbucks, on the other hand, she added, “can always” afford its rent.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Three new businesses opened in Mattapan in the past three years and three more are set to launch, according to Mattapan Square Main Streets, which supports businesses in the area.

Still, for a neighborhood that unsuccessfully fought the opening of a Burger King on River Street, the community temperature runs hot or cold over Starbucks.

Helena Tonge, president of the Belnel Family Neighborhood Association in Hyde Park, said the group — which had fought the opening of Burger King, arguing it is an unhealthy option in the neighborhood — supported the opening of the Starbucks after a series of community surveys, meetings and input from residents.

Residents felt it would be a “benefit for the community,” Tonge said. They also were pleased with the selection process, which Tonge said was more inclusive.  Starbucks had expressed favor for the neighborhood, Tonge added, but now she has concerns. Her concerns include the lack of access to the community room inside the café and the patio on the lawn that has been closed off since the summer.

“If you’re not serving what you promised, then we can’t support what you want to do (going) forward until we make sure that you’re supporting what was agreed upon,” said Tonge, who said her contacts to Starbucks officials about her concerns have so far been met with silence.

“We understand it’s a business to make money, but at the same time it has to be a relationship,” she added. “The community can’t just keep throwing money towards you and you’re not giving back to the community. It can’t be one-sided.”

Ben Echevarria, executive director of Mattapan Square Main Streets, said that for Mattapan, which represents one of Boston’s largest communities of color, Starbucks is a needed space and a plus for the community.

Echevarria said that one of the ways to keep Mattapan a strong community of color is by having local businesses hire local people and pay equitable wages, and for local business owners to be an integral part of the neighborhood.

“Generally speaking, businesses like Starbucks are worrisome to us because they generally signal gentrification,” said Echevarria, who also noted that Starbucks tends to pick communities where they can be successful. “Starbucks does offer people a sit-down coffee shop that many in the community want. However, chains take money from out of our community, whereas local businesses continue to invest in the local economy.”

Mike Malcolm, a barbershop owner in Mattapan, said he supports the local Starbucks, though he prefers Dunkin’ Donuts. He said he wants to see businesses in the neighborhood prosper and dismissed criticisms that the Starbucks would lead to gentrification.

“People who are worried about gentrification need to do something about it,” Malcolm said.  “If you’re worried about it, that means you can’t afford to do anything about it, so you might as well just leave. Buy property … invest … unify … get some things done. Other than that, you really don’t have a voice.”

At the Mattapan Starbucks recently, the employees, overwhelmingly young and of color, served customers with pleasantries and a smile. The lines bulged with customers from near and far getting their fill of lattes, hot chai and other specialty coffee and teas.

Customers said they enjoy a coffeehouse in their community or near their homes. Some said it’s a good jolt for the neighborhood.

“I think Mattapan needs a revamp, period. They need to do it over, as far as housing, better jobs, more programs for kids,” said Renee Perry, a resident of Randolph on her way into the cafe. “But I think Starbucks is pretty good because it gives people a job and has good benefits, from what I’ve heard.”

Other patrons said they are holding out concerns about Starbucks.

“For now, the Starbucks isn’t much of a problem,” said Daniel L., a resident of Mattapan who did not want to give his last name. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if the same pattern continues over time in our area and judge from there.”