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‘Punk In The Produce’: How Mt. Pleasant Neighbors Are Trying To Save This Immigrant-Owned Grocery

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On Saturday night, dozens of people crowded near the tomatoes, lettuce, and avocados at BestWorld Supermarket in Mount Pleasant to watch a punk show.

Organizers dimmed the lights, a DJ set up shop in the corner, and local bands Priests, Park Snakes, and Los Gallos Negros stuck their mics between the Jarritos soda section and an open produce fridge. It was a completely sold-out show that raised thousands of dollars for the much-loved neighborhood grocery.

“Mount Pleasant as a neighborhood means a lot to me. It was the first place in D.C. where I really felt comfortable,” says Maria Florencia Barrios, the lead singer of Park Snakes. Originally from a suburb of Buenos Aires, Barrios (who goes by her stage name Nenet) moved to D.C. about six years ago. She lives a block away from BestWorld, and says she goes there when she misses home.

“BestWorld was a total trip when I first stepped in there, it’s the total opposite of going into a place like Giant or Safeway. It gave me the feeling of being in a market in a barrio,” she says.

BestWorld Supermarket is an unassuming, immigrant-owned grocery store at 3178 Mount Pleasant Street NW, part of a tight knit neighborhood with a large Latino population. You can find quality Mexican cheese and the right kind of cornmeal to make arepas. You can buy good kimchi and noodles and jackfruit. It’s the kind of grocery store that turns into a haven for people who come from somewhere else (or whose parents come from somewhere else), and crave foods they just don’t sell at Safeway.

Daniel Herrera, a member of Los Gallos Negros originally from Los Angeles, says that when he “first moved [to D.C.], I really struggled to figure out what to cook and where to get stuff that reminded me of home. BestWorld was one of the markets that became a little piece of home for me. It has some of these products that aren’t available in other places.”

But despite winning the hearts and shopping loyalty of many Mount Pleasant locals, BestWorld’s existence is under threat. The grocery’s lease ended in March 2018, and property owner Michael Choi promptly put the building on the market. Pharmacy giant CVS soon showed interest in buying the supermarket’s space, and that of Don Juan Restaurant, a community staple next door. Corporate drug stores like CVS are popping up across the city—and country—in a process that CityLab calls “pharmafication.”

The backlash in Mount Pleasant was swift and fierce. Local community development nonprofit District Bridges got involved through it’s Mount Pleasant Main Street program, and started a petition online opposing the pharmacy. More than 2,500 people have signed it to date.

For several of the young Latino musicians and activists that helped organize the punk show, the pushback is personal: BestWorld is a place that reminds them of home, of people and places they know and love. They want to preserve a neighborhood that reflects who they are—even if the question of where they fit is sometimes complicated.

“It’s really interesting for me as a Latino professional,” says Herrera. “I am Latino, and in that sense, I’m a part of a community that’s still very heavy in this area. But I’m also a working D.C. professional whose social circle is very different than that community. So it’s a source of internal tension for me.”

Herrera says playing the show at BestWorld, one of his favorite local grocery stores, felt like a way to resolve some of that internal tension. He sometimes feels confused about whether he’s a gentrifier or part of the gentrified, he says, and supporting local businesses that reflect the immigrant makeup of a neighborhood helps him establish what side he’s on.

Brianne Dornbush, the executive director of District Bridges, says the organization has been in direct contact with CVS regarding how residents feel about the possibility of them moving into BestWorld’s space.

“The crux of the issue for us is not whether CVS is a good business, but that it’s not the right fit for that place,” she says. “It’s not hostile … we’re trying to protect what people love about Mount Pleasant.”

This isn’t the first time residents have fiercely objected to big chain stores coming into the neighborhood, though it does have a 7-Eleven. A Subway franchise that now sits nearby was the target of protests back in 2015 that included animated light projections on the building’s facade.

CVS hasn’t made any further moves to buy the space, and all has been quiet in the few months since the petition seemed to have its desired effect, Dornbush says. But the property where BestWorld sits is still for sale, and the grocery store is operating on a month-to-month lease. “That’s not very stable and secure for a business,” Dornbush says.

That’s where “Punk In The Produce” comes in.

The benefit concert is meant to help the store modernize and refurbish, in order to attract more customers, says Mariel Garcia, a volunteer who organized the concert.

Months ago, she and other organizers sent a survey out to residents asking for their general impressions of BestWorld. She says they got about 400 responses, split into roughly three groups: people who love BestWorld and shop there all the time; people who say it’s a fine, convenient grocer that could use an update; and people who say racist things about its patrons and owners.

“Our fundraising efforts have focused on renovating the store in order to appeal to that middle group of people,” Garcia says. The money raised from the punk show will go to upgrades in the facade and windows of the building. Store owners Young Suk Pak and In Suk Pak—who are married to one another—would also like some new paint, new shelving, new fridges, and maybe even new floors, Garcia says.

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