The Whole Foods Effect

Gentrification is a problem that affects neighborhoods all over the country. It is the process of renovating an area to better appeal to the middle-class, and often displaces longtime residents by pricing them out the neighborhood. It can also erase cultures that have grown with the community and plays into systemic inequality. This issue is relevant to Pittsburgh and is very visible in lower-income neighborhoods like East Liberty. Based on a study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Pittsburgh is the eighth most gentrified city in the country. While gentrification can bring more affluence to a neighborhood, it typically does so at the cost of displacing low-income individuals who are often people of color.

For this project, I addressed the issue of gentrification within Pittsburgh through interventions on Yelp, an online business directory service and crowd-sourced review forum. I focused on a site of gentrification that has received a lot of backlash within the past few years. The site is located in East Liberty and is currently under development for the construction of luxury apartments and retail space, which will be grounded by a 50,000 square foot Whole Foods Market. This development, called “Liberty East,” displaced around 228 low-income residents who lived in Penn Plaza Apartments, which provided affordable housing. Some residents lost their jobs because of the forced relocation, and many lost access to public transportation. Displacement also often comes with the loss of community for longtime residents.

To address this site of gentrification, I posted a total of three reviews on Yelp, all of similar language. One was posted to the Yelp page of the current Whole Foods in Shadyside, which will relocate to the new development next summer. One was posted to the Yelp page of LG Realty Advisors, Inc., which is the real estate service that displaced Penn Plaza residents for the new development. The final review was posted on a new page I created for the Whole Foods that will be built on top of what was Penn Plaza. The reviews give all three locations one-star reviews and emphasize the gentrification happening in East Liberty by pointing out the consequences of Whole Foods’ and LG Realty’s actions. The reviews discuss what used to occupy the gentrified space and what this gentrification means for longtime residents. To make my reviews more visible, I shared the reviews with friends and asked them to respond in anyway they felt appropriate. Yelp users have the ability to respond to reviews in a few ways. They can choose to give a quick reaction of “useful,” “funny,” or “cool,” send a compliment to the reviewer, or send a direct message to the reviewer. Out of the three reactions, all the ones I received were that the reviews were “useful.” Each review got four to five of these reactions. I also got four compliments. Three of them were “thank you”, and one of them was “good writer.”

Though I wish more of the responses I received hadn’t come from people I knew, they all mentioned that the reviews made them more aware about Pittsburgh’s gentrification issues. Also, since reviews on Yelp don’t usually generate a lot of responses, I am happy that I got any at all. If my account and reviews don’t get removed, I will continue monitoring and updating the responses I get.

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