Earl Ofari Hutchinson
I was pleased when I first heard that Wal-Mart would move into the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall. Getting a Wal-Mart there seemed like one way to end the foot-dragging by Community Redevelopment Agency officials and corporate developers on the Crenshaw Revitalization Project.
The lack of action on the project has been a sore spot with many Crenshaw residents. They have heard the CRA and elected officials make pledge after pledge to remake the area. But in the seven years since the L.A. riots, they have watched dozens of redevelopment projects completed in Los Angeles County while businesses have folded or vacated the mall. Nearby Santa Barbara Plaza remains an eyesore.
Wal-Mart also seemed the perfect rebuke to Macy’s, which abruptly pulled out of the mall last January because, it says, the store didn’t generate enough sales. The claim fed into the falsehood that the Crenshaw District and South Central Los Angeles is a social and economic wasteland where businesses are doomed to fail.
This is nonsense. Several recent studies reveal that the income of the area’s mostly black and Latino residents has steadily climbed thus increasing purchasing power. In addition, black joblessness has plunged. This should cause retailers to flock to the area, not flee from it.
And this is why I’m rethinking a Wal-Mart in the Crenshaw district. Since its heyday in the 1960s, the Baldwin Hills mall has had major retailers who stocked quality merchandise. The stores conformed with the needs and tastes of the upwardly mobile black business people who had moved to the area. Many still live and operate businesses there.
When Macy’s left, many residents expected Eighth District City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, as well as the CRA and officials with the mall, to make a strong effort to attract another top-notch retail store to fill the vacant space and maintain the area’s economic continuity. Many community residents still wonder whether this was done.
Mall officials say that Wal-Mart will create more jobs, increase tax revenues, provide a huge selection of discount merchandise, and bankroll an array of social and educational causes. That’s true. As the world’s largest retailer with $117 billion in sales, 2,600 stores nationally and internationally, and the second biggest employer outside the U.S. government, Wal-Mart certainly has the cash to do that.
However, there’s another side to the story. Despite its “Buy America” banners in the stores, the company has been accused of exploiting sweatshop labor in the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and other Asian countries. It has been the target of numerous employee discrimination suits. It has been branded as a ruthless union buster. Wal-Mart officials vehemently deny these charges.
There are two other big fears. The first is that Wal-Mart could wipe out small businesses. It is nearly impossible for a local merchant to compete with Wal-Mart’s deep-discount pricing and the almost unlimited range of food, merchandise and services. This could devastate many minority-owned specialty shops and stores currently in the mall and discourage new businesses from starting up there. This could also accelerate the exodus of local residents to other shopping centers.
The other fear is the nightmarish traffic, noise and congestion that a Wal-Mart could bring to an area. This could wreak ruin on the property values and stability of surrounding neighborhoods and is the reason why most of the Wal-Marts are located in outlying suburban areas, where there is plenty of land and parking space to accommodate traffic and reduce congestion.
It’s also the reason why residents, local officials and business groups often wage titanic battles to keep Wal-Marts out of their neighborhoods. A Wal-Mart in the Baldwin-Hills Mall would be the first to locate in central Los Angeles. This would be the wedge that Wal-Mart officials seek to expand into Los Angeles. They certainly make no secret that this is what they want. In their 1998 annual report, they tell of plans to open more than 200 stores in the next few years and they want to put many of them in central cities, and that includes Los Angeles.
The jury is way out on whether Wal-Mart is right for the Crenshaw district. CRA officials, Ridley-Thomas and the mall itself should review studies on the environmental and economic impact Wal-Mart stores have had on other communities. Better still, they should commission their own study on the impact a Wal-Mart would have on the Crenshaw district and other parts of Los Angeles. They should also disclose what efforts they have made to interest other retailers in locating in the mall.
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton promised to “lower the cost of living for everyone.” That’s what worries me. It’s not a matter of providing the cheapest goods possible. It’s a matter of providing what’s best for the residents and business owners in the Crenshaw district and the city of Los Angeles.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of “The Crisis in Black and White.” He can be heard Tuesday nights on KPFK-FM 90.7.