Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Community members in the city's Mount Pleasant neighborhood organized a punk-rock benefit to support a local grocer and stop a rumored CVS takeover.
BestWorld can be easy to overlook among Washington, D.C.’s grocers. The modest neighborhood supermarket doesn’t sell craft beer on draft like Glen’s Garden Market or dozens of made-in-D.C. wares like Union Kitchen Grocery. It’s an unpretentious landmark in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, one of the city’s least bougie locales. But when shoppers need a ride home with their groceries, BestWorld owner In Suk Pak will drive them himself.
Old-fashioned service helps to explain the fierce loyalty that many residents in the neighborhood feel toward their local supermarket. Even folks who don’t shop there take some comfort in its presence, as a kind of totem of their values: local, independent, and immigrant-operated.
Or maybe it’s just that people really don’t see the need for another CVS. Over the weekend, community activists mounted a benefit concert for BestWorld—at BestWorld—in response to rumors that the behemoth retail pharmacy chain wants to move in to the property. Area punk bands Priests and Park Snakes joined the Latinx music collective Los Gallos Negros as well as tomatoes, potatoes, and other staples for “Punk in the Produce”: a can’t-miss special for a city that prides itself on its DIY scene.
“On any given day [at BestWorld], you will see brown people, black people, Asian people, rich people, poor people—it’s accessible to everyone,” says Mariel Garcia, the community organizer who assembled the benefit. “I can’t think of anywhere else in D.C. where you can go and buy jackfruit, African fufu powder, Jamaican jerk seasoning, and noodles for your Korean barbecue.”
Punks and advocates are rallying against a pervasive threat in booming urban neighborhoods: Let’s call it “pharmafication.” Like the suddenly ubiquitous Duane Reades that have conquered the storefronts of Manhattan, CVS has been furiously opening new outlets in cities nationwide, absorbing independent local competitors and transforming the local retail landscape: The company already operates 9,700 stores and 1,100 walk-in clinics in 49 states and the District. As my colleague Laura Bliss noted recently, about 82 percent of the U.S. population lives within a 15-minute drive of one of its stores.
This brewing battle of Mount Pleasant ticks off every item on the community-complaint checklist, with a corporate giant allegedly threatening to uproot a grocery store that serves an ethnically diverse local population. But it also raises some specific questions about the future of retail, the curious role of CVS within that ecosystem, and what an alternative might look like.
Around 150 people turned up for the sold-out benefit, shelling out between $20 and $500 to see some of D.C.’s favorite bands tear it up in the veggie section. The kicky venue was surely a big part of the appeal: Basement concerts at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and punk shows at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are also big draws in the District. But in Mount Pleasant, BestWorld is its own cause. Or maybe it’s anti-CVS sentiment that’s putting butts in aisles. More than 2,500 people have signed a petition against the outlet’s expansion.
Residents fear that selling out to CVS would also mean losing the Salvadoran restaurant next door, whose property belongs to the same landlord, Michael Choi. (His decision to lease an adjacent space to a Subway restaurant prompted emoji-filled protests a few years back.) A CVS could spell doom for an independent pharmacy across the street, as well as other spots on the strip. As community organizer Dawne Langford points out, even discounting Mount Pleasant’s existing pharmacy, there’s already another CVS about four blocks east and a different one less than a mile away. The Washington Post confirmed that CVS is looking in the area, but there’s no deal on the Mount Pleasant Street space yet.
BestWorld wouldn’t be the city’s first neighborhood amenity consumed by CVS. The mega-druggist has a keen sniffer for real estate. In the District alone, CVS occupies the former homes of the Naylor Theatre, MacArthur Theater, and the Biograph. In Baltimore, residents still lament the loss of the Hippo, an art-deco landmark that was one of the city’s oldest gay bars, now another three-letter pharmacy. The fanciest CVS in the nation may belong to East Los Angeles, whose Golden Gate Theatre was converted to a drugstore in 2012. While these kinds of adaptive reuse projects may be preferable to vacancy and blight, the cookie-cutter retail offerings within them detract from the texture of a neighborhood.
The goal of the benefit, Garcia says, is to try to update BestWorld to make it a more attractive tenant. (BestWorld’s current owners took over the lease in 2012; Garcia says the store has been operating month-to-month since March 2017.) So far, that means replacing rusted iron gates over the windows and rethinking some of the interior flow; new paint for the exterior is coming next. The changes are all meant to shift people’s perceptions about the place.
That’s in part a response to market research. Garcia surveyed about 300 local residents, she says, and their opinions fell into three camps: People either loved BestWorld as is, felt that it could be more relevant, or dismissed it with “ignorant or racist rhetoric.”
Beyond some capital improvements, Garcia says that they are connecting the Paks with the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, which offers business consultation services (and, crucially, Korean language interpreters). The organizers believe that things on the store’s business side can be improved to make it more sustainable. “They have the expertise and the knowledge of what it means to do business as an Asian American in the D.C. area,” Garcia says.
In one sense, CVS is obviously a safer proposition. They sell things that everybody needs; that’s why there is a CVS every place you turn. At the same time, they sell little that can’t easily be acquired online. CVS doesn’t sell fresh vegetables, much less plantains or ancho peppers favored by a diverse neighborhood. Moreover, CVS sells cookware, phone chargers, and board games available via Amazon with only a click. (Which is to say nothing of the brick-and-mortar Amazon outlets that grocery stores also now need to contend with.) On paper, these kinds of chain pharmacies could be vulnerable to the same retailpocalypse that has claimed so many big-box retailers, book vendors, and toy stores.
CVS has other ambitions, of course. With its $69 billion acquisition of Aetna approved earlier this month, CVS (or CVS Health) is destined to be a lot more than just a place to buy gum and aspirin: It may be the new face of American healthcare. (Cigna recently bought Express Scripts, a pharmacy rival.) Analysts say that by expanding both the number of pharmacies with MinuteClinic walk-in clinics and increasing the kinds of laboratory services they offer, CVS Health aims to compete with primary healthcare service providers.
That’s a cold comfort for folks who just want to feel good about where they buy their Goya products. And the evolving business model does nothing to address the overall dreariness of the brand’s march across U.S. cities. The stores are “not inspiring, but inoffensively bland,” writes Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News—but design is the least of the chain’s problems.
“To get to the pharmaceuticals that are intended to heal us—always in the rearmost aisles—CVS marches you past aisles packed with all manner of food and drinks that are categorically bad for your health,” Lamster writes. “Last year, in acknowledgment of this bit of hypocrisy, CVS heralded a ‘new store design’ that would ‘enhance the retail customer experience with a new assortment of healthier food.’ That’s well and good, but the junk foods are still there.”
The fundamental problem of CVS may come down to the fact that it’s a doctor’s office wrapped in a crummy corner store. Local grocers who want to compete—or rather, bodegas struggling to not be replaced—will have to find their own evolving models. Earlier this year, the Salvation Army opened a nonprofit grocery store—its first—in East Baltimore. Boston’s Tropical Foods stands out as a thriving supermarket that recently expanded, even though it primarily serves Latinx, West Indian, African, and African-American shoppers in a low-income neighborhood.
Community organizers in D.C. have taken a first step toward bolstering BestWorld’s role in the neighborhood and the city by giving it a sense of place. (The first of many, they say, from building active community space inside the store to hosting more shows.) That goes a long way in D.C.: A new luxury hotel called Eaton Workshop snagged glowing headlines by pitching itself as a kind of anti–Trump Hotel, an exclusive third space for “an inclusive tribe of changemakers and creatives.”
But the punks are already building that necessary space, from the ground up, in a low-key neighborhood grocery store.
“We’ve bought some time for them, because of the community outpouring,” Langford says. “All these efforts have helped slow things down and make it more feasible for them to stay.”