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Walmart: maybe it's better than nothing?

Melons
When thought about myself as a writer, I never imagined myself writing about Walmart.

Yet, there I was, spending my Saturday morning in a crowded parking lot on the South Side, watching hundreds of people line up for the opportunity to buy cantelopes for a dollar a piece.

Four days worth of produce were sold in three hours.

I never thought I would be writing about Walmart, but here I am.

Last week, I got a vague email with a press release for a new Walmart. I didn't delete it, but I rolled my eyes. I'm not really a write-about-giant-hated-multi-billion-dollar-corporations kind of girl.

Then my husband was chatting to me about Christian Lander, the author of Stuff White People Like. He watched an interview with him, and one of the questions was "What post made your white friends the most upset?"

His answer: "Knowing what's best for poor people."

This Walmart press release and this other random fact rolled around in my head, until they met, made friends and ended up driving me down to Chatham Saturday morning.

So, there's this big empty lot in Chatham. There used to be a U.S. Steel plant there. But not anymore. The site is supposed to be commercial development, but it's been held up. There's a Lowe's and a Potbelly there, and room for quite a few other small businesses. But the main anchor is a big empty lot, and that's where Alderman Howard Brookins wants to put a Walmart.

Should we build a new Walmart in Chatham? from Megan Cottrell on Vimeo.

Four years ago, he tried to put one there, but he was defeated. "Find another retailer," people told him. He tried Target, Dominick's, Roundy's, K-Mart, Sears and Kohl's, he says. He offered them tax incentives to come, but nothing happened.  Nobody wants this empty lot.

And his people need jobs. Chicago's unemployment rate is 11.3 percent. Chatham's? It's 20 percent.

Food Desert Map.png

Chicago's food deserts in pink, according to the latest research

And the South Side is crawling with what advocates call "food deserts." Places where there just aren't grocery stores.

I think most of us who live on the North Side have never really experienced this. There are two grocery stores within walking distance of my Lincoln Square apartment, one less than a block away.

But when I spent a summer in Lawndale on the Westside, I saw a bit of this. The only place to get food within walking distance was Save-A-Lot. Although it was cheap, there wasn't much, and their produce department looked wilted and covered in dust. When we wanted food, we'd sometimes go to the Dominick's on Roosevelt, but it was often too expensive and the quality wasn't much better. Most of the time, we took a weekly trip to the suburbs to go to Walmart.

In many poor communities, there aren't stores, except for liquor stores. There aren't banks. There are currency exchanges. There aren't offices or retailers or restaurants.

No economic development. No jobs. No fresh food. No tax revenue.

There is one Walmart store on the West side. I visited there two weeks ago, and it was bustling. The average wage there is $12 an hour, and the employees have access to at least some health insurance. It's attracted other economic development like Aldi and Bank of America. It still has its critics, but it's there.

Walmart doesn't have a good reputation. If you've seen Walmart: the high cost of low price you already know about Walmarts vicious resistance to unions, their lack of environmental responsibility, their low wages and expensive health benefits, and there general disregard for anything except the bottom line.

Here's a clip:


I watched the documentary this weekend, and even though I was shocked at many of the company's actions, I had this nagging thought: is it still better than nothing?

I guess I'm taking a bit of a U-turn here. I recently wrote about how awful it is to have a crappy, dead-end job, and how we can't expect anyone to settle for them.

Walmart Line

Just part of the line to buy fresh produce on Saturday. It stretched nearly all around the parking lot

But this giant empty lot made me re-think things.

It's a luxury for me to be able to turn up my nose at Walmart. I have other places to shop. I have other places to look for a job.

Many people don't have that luxury. And who am I to stand in the way of some income, some benefits, some fresh food, some economic development? It may not be the way I would want to do it, but I also wouldn't want to live in a community without a grocery store and without any available jobs for my neighbors.

Yes, Walmart has union problems, environmental problems, wage problems, health care problems.

But they are also the only company willing to come into a tough community, bringing jobs and fresh food with them.

It's easy for those of us who choose not to shop at Walmart to look down our noses. It's easy for us to know what's best.

But I also wonder - do we really know what's best? Are we saving people from crappy jobs and refusing to give profits to a company we don't support?

I don't know. But the chant on Saturday was "It's our community. It's our choice."

How do we argue with that?

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9 Comments

lizjoyntsandberg said:

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ahhhhhhhh! My brain can't handle this kind of news!!! No one is telling me what to think! No one is shoving their perspective down my throat and making me feel uninformed for not already knowing all of the backstory and key players! I'm being challenged by new perspective on an already decided issue (walmart = always the worst ever). Just kidding obviously Megan, but very seriously, thanks for bringing this up and finding fresh perspective and challenging me to look beyond my bias and inhabit (in a tiny way) a world I know so little about. This is how we change the world - through knowing and sharing these stories - all of our stories. We do it by finding new ways to look at things. Nice moves once again.

frankalready said:

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i'm all for community self-determination, but this is still hard for me to swallow. wal-mart is notorious for using astroturf (fake grassroots) organizing, and this campaign, including the 'farmer's market' (which is trucked in produce that has been flown in from farms all over the damn place) smells fake as hell to me.

not to say that folks in chatham don't deserve a grocery store, because they do, and not to say that if they want a wal-mart, they can't have one, cause they can of course.

but we shouldn't swallow the pr pill that wal-mart is pushing that somehow they are green, pro worker, and a solution to unemployment and food deserts. they most certainly are not.

Megan Cottrell said:

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I agree, Frank, that this campaign is a little scripted and fake. The idea of a "farmer's market" was a little silly, although there were a group of African-American farmers from Indiana who stood up and said their produce was being sold.
I don't buy that Walmart has suddenly turned into a good company. But what's the solution? I feel like all anyone can say to Chatham is "no walmart," but no one has anything else to offer. If we can't give them a positive solution, I don't know how we expect the community to do anything else.

rwoodley said:

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People need jobs especially right now and people need services in these under-served neighborhoods. If the locals want this in the neighborhood why does anyone else have a right to meddle.

In other words I agree with Megan and am glad she is out there propagating sanity.

Joe the Cop said:

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For what it's worth, when I was in New Orleans in the days after Katrina, Walmart had the most effective emergency response of any large institution I saw. I got tetanus and hepatitis shots from their medical team, and their security teams moved into the area with lists of employees to locate them. It was impressive.

Vote4Chatham said:

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Has anyone ever considered the possibility that Walmart may have-- yes really-- improved? Megan, the documentary that you source hit theaters in 2005. Doesn't it say something that the opposing arguments are still the same 5 years later?

Consider this washington post story , which details how Walmart has improved and now actually is a leader in healthcare. Read it here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/02/13/ST2009021300507.html

The Tribune JUST had a story about how Walmart is a leader in sustainability:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/green/chi-thu-wal-mart-ecolabel-0716-jul16,0,7878172.story

These are actual journalistic accounts, not skewed talking points like you would receive from both sides.

It's no secret Walmart has had lawsuits & problems in the past but be fair-- so has Target & every other big retailer in the world. I don't think we should punish the world's largest employer -- and overlook the improvements it has made-- at the expense of a community that WANTS and needs it.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Yes, the documentary did come out 5 years ago. And since then, it seems Walmart has made some strides. They've also made some different commitments to Chicago than they have to other cities. I think that's admirable, but it doesn't mean they're perfect.

Nor should we expect them to be. They're not the savior of the community, but they're not the devil either. Either way, the community should have its eyes wide open when it makes the decision - which means that Chatham should know that Walmart isn't necessarily their guardian angel, and Chicago should know that Chatham maybe needs Walmart in a way other, more affluent communities don't.

As far as fair and balanced, both those articles admit there are still shortcomings and rely on the company's own proof that it's a changed beast.

Mr. Brown Thumb said:

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When the ruckus over Walmart first erupted my Alderman came to my door looking for my vote with a union guy in tow to tell me about how big and bad Walmart is. I basically laughed in his face and told him that you can't expect people to demand steak when they don't even have cold cuts and shut the door and voted against him.

It is shameful that people keep trying to stand in the way of progress in some of these neighborhoods that need it most. If people don't like Walmart they shouldn't shop there.

That entry on Stuff White People Like is hilarious.

PamelaFeola said:

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The public wants low prices and if that means keeping wages and benefits low and shunning unions then that is what Walmart is giving the public. If you are angry or upset, then you should direct your comments to the general public as it is the general public that has benefited from Wal-mart's practices and they are not to blame.

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