Walmart in Chinatown: There Goes the Neighborhood

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February 24, 2012 in Labor & Economy

The recent confirmation that Walmart will be setting up shop in Chinatown made my heart drop. This is a neighborhood that will always hold a special place in my heart. Having previously worked in the community for two years, I can tell you stories of eating pastries at Phoenix Bakery or the smells of ginseng and tea wafting from Wing Hop Fung or the sound of elders debating loudly at family association meetings.

Chinatown holds so much history but it’s also a living community that remains a cultural and economic hub for hundreds of thousands of other Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian American residents. It has been the landing spot for immigrants for centuries, even after the original Chinatown was demolished and moved to its current location. Despite this disruption, the fabric of the community has managed to stay intact – continuing to provide a sense of community for many Asian Americans.

It is the keeper of millennia-old traditions, home to numerous families, provides traditional foods and services, houses religious centers and serves as a source of jobs. Chinatown is still where many new immigrants find their first jobs. Many immigrants also saw an opportunity to become business owners and their businesses continue to operate today, sometimes staying in the same family for generations.

While the arrival of new immigrants is slowing, Chinatown still remains a crucial cultural and economic hub and an unmistakable part of the Los Angeles landscape. That’s why the fact that behemoth retailer Walmart is locating in the neighborhood is alarming. This is a company known for decimating “Main Streets” across the country. Chinatown is built on small business and Walmart would be in direct competition with the local markets and shops that already serve the local population.

Moreover, while Walmart claims it will bring jobs and provide more grocery shopping options, Walmart’s own Associates have bravely spoken out about the company’s poverty level wages that keep many on welfare, including food stamps, shrinking and unaffordable healthcare coverage, and poor treatment of workers. Workers at the Walmart in South L.A. can attest to the reduction in staffing at that store from 400 when it first opened to well under 300 now. This only meant that each employee had to do twice as much work but didn’t necessarily receive more compensation for their labor.

Nearly 25 years ago, when this project was first being considered, homeowners and residents were already concerned about the project’s potential impact on the quality of life of the neighborhood; the fact that a Walmart wants to occupy the retail space creates a more adverse impact. The site, developed in cooperation with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), received over $3 million in subsidies as well as other benefits.

Even though the CRA is no longer around, the city is still responsible for ensuring that public dollars are well spent. The city should ensure this project generates good jobs for local residents, that the operations of the business do not create hardship for local businesses and residents, and that the character of this historic neighborhood is not dramatically harmed. The city of L.A. can’t afford to simply believe Walmart’s unsubstantiated promises of jobs and food at the risk of the community’s existing residents and businesses. It is a dishonor to Chinatown, one of our most vital and cultural neighborhoods, to allow Walmart to come in without putting safeguards in place to ensure that the needs of the community are met first.

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Aiha Nguyen
Aiha is Director of LAANE's Good Grocery Stores campaign. She first joined LAANE as an intern while completing her master’ in urban planning at UCLA. After graduating, she returned to LAANE as a policy analyst on theAccountable Airports Project. Aiha...
Read more articles by Aiha Nguyen

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  • bảo.thiên.ngô

    Small business advocacy is especially relevant in an ethnic-immigrant community because of the education disparities and language barriers that prevent such communities from being able to effectively organize to counter hostile corporations. Don’t just talk about the glass ceiling within corporations for Asian Americans; how many businessowners and business magnates that have limited English proficiency know how to run an S-corporation or business consortium? How many can secure capital to do neighborhood redevelopment? Is it any wonder why incidents like the San Francisco prosecution of one pho restaurant for wage theft is any surprise? While I don’t defend the businessowners for stealing their worker’s wages, no one reached out to them and said, “Hey, that’s unethical. There are smarter ways to run your business you know.” I’m willing to bet that there are many Asian American businesses who are NOT part of any kind of business association to really talk about not just “what’s good for my business/me”, but shift such discussions to “what’s good for our community?”

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  • Kimberly Te

    Wait. No. This is going to be an economic disaster for the small business community in Chinatown.

  • 1 for Choice

    What a bunch of horseshit a number of these arguments and the whole anti Walmart movement consists of.

    If you hate Walmart don’t shop there, period….. They will go out of business and go away.

    If Walmart has what you need and are a good competitive alternative to your other options in the neighborhood, be it downtown or elsewhere, then give them your business.

    It’s called freedom of choice, one of the things that remains great about this country and which also levels the playing field between what is needed and what is not.

    They are no better and no worse than their competitors large and small, including the national chains like Ralphs, Vons, Target, Kmart or the independant Hispanic Markets like Northgate, El Super, Vallarta or the markets that currently exist in Chinatown.

    I also am not a big advocate of the unions and their arguments and agenda. They almost single handedly wiped out our auto industry by making making us non-competitive in a global market.

    This new store will bring jobs and provide tax base for the City, both of which are sorely and strongly needed in this economy. It hopefully will also spur additional development and help attract more business to downtown that are currently lacking and needed and help link Downtown to Chinatown and Chinatown to the communities of Angelino Heights and Silverlake that lie west of the 110 Freeway.

    • Anonymous

      There were articles in the LA Times about unions and wages in German auto plants. They pay better than in the US, but the German cars are still globally competitive. Go figure.

      American dominance in autos was a product of history. Before WW2, how many viable global auto companies where there, in the entire world? How many countries produced autos? I’m guessing it was the US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, and maybe Japan. During WW2, every single one of these countries was bombed out. Their industrial capacity was decimated, leaving only the US auto industry intact.

      So, for 30 years, the US dominated, while the others rebuilt. Only Germany and Japan emerged as global competition. How can the unions be blamed, when Japan and Germany both had strong auto unions? The other country that emerged to compete in the global market was Sweden, and they’re not only unionized, they’re socialists. (Who cares about Italy, France, and the UK for cars anymore? They are boutique makes.)

      What I think really happened was that the US automakers were huge, and used to winning sales with minimal effort. Their main market was the US, which was not used to buying foreign cars. The smaller foreign competition took advantage of US automakers’ weak points.

      In retrospect, weak points were things like: not having a decent fuel-efficient line, when the two 70s oil crises happened; having only one luxury car line, the Cadillac, which made very large cars; not producing European-influenced sports cars; and not having some cars that would “last forever” (or at least a lot longer than the average consumer wanted to keep a car).

      These were all marketing errors. The marketing and product development departments aren’t union.

      The other problem was the lack of diversity: Ford, GM, Chrysler… and AMC. It was a tri-opoly. AMC was on the fringes with their Jeeps and Pacers. Big companies move slowly. (Perhaps if there were a few more companies, there’d have been a more diverse product selection. Ultimately, Jeep got very popular, and Pacers and Gremlins became cool retro cars.)

      The UAW also failed to unite with the Japanese and German auto unions, and force foreign companies opening factories in the US to be union shops. The Japanese factories that opened, non-union, in the US, harmed not only the US unionized workers, but the unionized workers in Japan as well.

      Big organizations move slowly, too.

      Anyway, it’s kind of moot and in the past. There’s been a lot of cross-ownership between these big companies. Japanese and German cars are expensive now. American cars are cheaper and built better than ever. UAW is talking about organizing the foreign-owned plants in the South. Germans autoworkers earn a lot, and American and Japanese earn a lot less. The current low-price competition is from Korea… and their unions are being hurt when Korean companies open non-union factories here.

    • Anonymous

      Also re: “This new store will bring jobs and provide tax base for the City, both of which are sorely and strongly needed in this economy. It hopefully will also spur additional development and help attract more business to downtown that are currently lacking and needed and help link Downtown to Chinatown and Chinatown to the communities of Angelino Heights and Silverlake that lie west of the 110 Freeway.”

      This attitude is just gentrification. Chinatown is linked to Lincoln Heights, where there’s a Vietnamese and Chinese community that’s an extension of Chinatown. It used to be Little Italy, too, and that was also extending up into LH back in the old days. Also, it already extends over to the west. Look at who is living in the houses and apartments around Everett Park – Chinese and Vietnamese people.

      This Wal-Mart is supposed to appeal to the people living in the new “fortress” apartment complexes that just opened up. It’s “American” (meaning Anglo-compatible), not ethnic. That’s the main criteria, I suspect.

      I see this strategy happening all over Downtown. The most obvious one is Ralphs, but there’s also Fresh and Easy in South Central, and the Ralphs by USC. These stores are bringing suburban style into the Downtown area.

  • Anonymous

    This is going to be bad for Chinatown’s non-tourist businesses.

    The real civic f-ckup, for LA, would be that they’re pushing a healthy eating agenda for poor people, and potentially destroying a community that could teach the rest of LA about eating better on a small income. Chinatown is full of poor people, who happen to eat pretty healthy. They aren’t in a food desert, because, for various reasons, Chinatowns have stores that sell vegetables at low prices. It’s probably the cultural recipes, which create the local demand for them, combined with the need to cook.

    LA CT is pretty touristed out, but there are still grocery stores.

    What we need is for more Angelenos to eat like poor Chinese immigrants, not like Wal-Mart shoppers. I know, this brings up some stereotypes, but there’s everything right to getting several pounds of cheap vegetables in C-town, and everything wrong about ultra-low prices for Cheez-It, and I do too little of the former, and too much of the latter.

    I don’t mean the steam table fast food that’s in every ghetto mini mall.

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