NEWARK, NJ - When the glass doors slid open at the long-anticipated Whole Foods market opening on Wednesday, Karim Aquil Sharif, a chef who lives in Newark, stood right in the middle of the store, in a state of giddy excitement, as more than 500 people poured in around him.
"I'm a chef, and I just bought some store-made Italian chicken sausage, and I'm going down the aisle to buy some broccoli rabe to go with it," said Sharif, a Central Ward resident, as he eyed some organic New Zealand lamb shanks.
"The opening of this store means that I don't have to travel seven miles to Whole Foods when I've got one here in my backyard," Sharif said. "Anything that I need for good nutrition, in a place that used to be a food desert, I can get right here, right now."
The opening of the upscale market is also something of a positive affirmation for Newark, another indication that the city abandoned by the middle class after the 1967 riots has finally, once and for all, turned the corner.
Whole Foods is located at 633 Broad Street in the refurbished Hahne & Co. building, itself a symbol of Newark's storied past that was left for dead, then brought back to life as a repurposed multi-use building that combines living spaces with retail, academic and public spaces.
The Hahne's building is directly across from the recently-renovated Military Park, which is now ringed by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), a refurbished Robert Treat Hotel, the new Prudential Tower and a Starbucks coffee shop, with other development projects in the works. It is two blocks away from Rutgers-Newark, which just opened a new bookstore in the Hahne's building.
It is the now the newest of the 17 stores located in New Jersey, and the third of three in Essex County. Those county locations, situated in the nearby suburbs of Montclair and West Orange, are dedicated destinations in their own right.
The hope in Newark is that the 29,000 square-foot market, which was over three years in the making, lined with gleaming aisles packed with organic products such as fresh vegetables (including boutique purple potatoes), 100 percent grass-fed meat and artisanal cheese, becomes a destination as well.
"This morning, I looked up and I saw the sign, and I said, 'This is us,'" said Mayor Ras Baraka, a pescatarian who later looked to buy vegan ice cream. "They've hired more than 90 workers from Newark [out of 145 total workers], and they are selling local products from places like AeroFarms and T.M. Ward Coffee. Whole Foods is working with the community."
As an array of dignitaries and representatives of 11 Newark businesses and non-profit organizations ringed the podium, Baraka also lauded former Newark mayor and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a vegetarian who is now a former customer of the Montclair Whole Foods. Instead of a ribbon cutting, the dignitaries broke bread.
"This was Sen. Booker's vision," Baraka said about New Jersey's junior U.S. Senator, who lobbied Whole Foods for years to get one of their markets in Newark. "He got us in the game, and if you're not in the game, you can't play."
Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins noted that the Whole Foods was the second quality supermarket to open in the city's Central Ward in as many years.
"I look forward to more quality supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses opening in Newark," Chaneyfield Jenkins said. "The message we need to send today is that our residents can support stores like Whole Foods. The fact is that our residents have been shopping in the suburbs for years, taking our money out of the city. Now we are starting to turn that around and spending our money in our city at businesses that employ our residents."
Some observers of the new market, a harbinger of the accelerating gentrification of New Jersey's largest city, are concerned about the prices and affordability of a store chain better known as "Whole Paycheck," with higher prices that reflect the high quality of the food.
Other longtime Newarkers are also concerned about changes in the store's Central Ward neighborhood that they fear could price local residents out.
"This is exciting and this creates new jobs, but it really starts the flood of gentrification. This means that people are going to get displaced," said Natasha Pereira, an Ironbound resident. "Some of those apartments [at the neighboring Hahne's building] go for more than $2,500 a month. That's not for the people who have been living here for 30 years."
But Joshua Knoblick, an artist who has lived in Newark for 10 years and whose family has lived in Newark for 250 years, has a different view.
"Newark has a unique opportunity to get it right, and everyone seems to be on that train," said Knoblick. "I see what's coming down the pipe, and this looks like a part of inclusion."
Junius Williams, a city stalwart who played a key role in Newark's recent 350th anniversary celebrations, looked at the Whole Foods opening from yet another perspective.
"Yes, it's part of gentrification, but I see neighborhood people and friends here," said Williams, as he carried some tuna salad and some gourmet Spanish cheese.
"Newark has been food-starved for a long time, and [Whole Foods] was sensible enough to lower their prices so that the community that is Newark now can come and shop, not just the community that is to be," Williams said. "I'm concerned about gentrification, but there are people who are shopping in here that come from Newark."
For one of the shoppers crowding the aisle on Ash Wednesday, the new market was a miracle, a sign of the city's resurrection.
"I work in Montclair, but I live in Newark. I can now spend my money here," said Crystal Gaynor, a personal trainer, as she bought bananas for 49 cents a pound and whole chickens for 99 cents a pound. "This is a gift."