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.