How the retail behemoth’s bid to establish its footing downtown is raising questions about the future of Chinatown and the city as a whole.
August 29, 2012
I just ran out of fermented bean paste. This fact fills me with despair, because my supply was made by someone in a Jersey home kitchen and sold to my friend, who one day spooned out a generous portion for me to take home. Soups made with this paste are powerful. The smell fills my entire house and reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking, a taste that can’t be manufactured in a hurry. I console myself with the fact that last week in Flushing, I picked up a giant bag of perilla leaves, more than I’ll ever need for myself, from an elderly Korean woman who sells her wares on Union Street. Spread out on the sidewalk in plastic bags, her vegetables are still on stems, covered with dirt, and untrimmed, smelling like a backyard’s harvest, which in fact, it is. In Manhattan, just 10 of these leaves are immobilized behind plastic wrap on a Styrofoam tray and sold for exorbitant amounts.
Weekly, I join the sea of food commuters from all over the tri-state area who throng the streets of New York’s Chinatown, Jackson Heights, and Flushing, shopping for groceries that can’t be found elsewhere, or at least at these prices. Suitcases, backpacks, metal carts, bike baskets—I’ve seen them all, laden with jars, live crabs, fresh greens, double-bagged fish and meats.
Among these neighborhoods, downtown Chinatowns across the United States are facing intense demographic change, especially in the form of gentrification. These historic neighborhoods—some known more as tourist attractions—are losing working-class Chinese residents due to a combination of real estate speculation and city planning policies that seek to accommodate the wave of young professionals and families moving downtown. But in many cases, Chinatowns have remained commercial and retail hubs, holding on to many of the restaurants and groceries that are linked to places of origin in the Chinese diaspora, from Taiwan to Vietnam and Fujian province.
So it was puzzling to me when I heard that Wal-Mart, which had chosen a store site in Los Angeles Chinatown, considered the neighborhood a ‘food desert,’ according to Aiha Nguyen, a senior policy analyst at LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). Wal-Mart’s media rep Rachel Wall clarified, “We use the word, ‘underserved.’ There is no traditional full-service grocery store in downtown, according to the LA Chamber of Commerce.” In fact, it appears that downtown LA is slated to soon gain a new grocery store as well as a Target that will be selling fresh produce. Meanwhile, Chinatown residents and advocates argue that there are already two full-service groceries in the neighborhood, along with specialty food stalls, from butchers to seafood and produce stands. The Chinatown Business Improvement District counts 30 grocery stores in the neighborhood, and downtown LA also holds Japanese and Korean markets. Is LA’s Chinatown really underserved?
“Don’t get us wrong, we’re not against new markets. But does a grocery store mean Wal-Mart, a big corporation that is unfair competition? We don’t think so,” said Sophat Phea, a member of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an organization formed this year in response to Wal-Mart’s bid for entry into the neighborhood. “At first, I wasn’t opposed to the Wal-Mart because I didn’t know much about it. But my mom runs a shop in Chinatown, and she already has problems paying for rent, and it’s only going to get more difficult. Plus, I don’t want the cost of living to rise here anymore.”
Recently in July, Phea testified at a public hearing at the LA City Planning Commission to recommend an interim control ordinance (ICO) banning stores more than 20,000 square feet from opening in Chinatown for six months to a year. Passing this ordinance is a major goal for community members and advocates working to stop what they consider to be Wal-Mart’s backroom deal in Los Angeles, a deal that bypassed environmental reviews and secured the necessary permits in the 11th hour to secure their Chinatown location. While City Council approved the interim control ordinance 14-0, it was a half-day too late, and Wal-Mart’s securing of exemptions is now the subject of a lawsuit by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.
In conversations with Chinatown residents, community organizers, policy organizations, and Wal-Mart’s rep, it became clear that there was far more at stake than the question of more food options in the downtown area. The debate that rages in planning commission hearings, street rallies, and weekend meetings revolves around the vision for the city as a whole: Who are the developers and city planning department building for? And who gets to represent Chinatown, with its organized business entities, mom and pop stores, and new immigrant communities?
Wal-Mart insists that this is a new kind of store, that it is filling a long-vacant storefront space, that residents in the building want a grocery, and that detractors are outsiders representing special interests. But as neighborhood residents and community advocates push back, a very public dispute continues to unravel, one that raises questions over Wal-Mart’s tactics to gain community support, its corporate practices as a whole, and its feared impact on Chinatown’s development and identity.
A little background: When Wal-Mart entered the business of selling fresh produce 24 years ago, it quickly dominated the landscape and became the world’s largest grocer, changing the way food was grown, prepared, packaged, and shipped all over the world (it currently captures 25 percent of the nation’s $550 billion dollar grocery spending). With many raising concerns about the big box’s influence on U.S. politics, and as the company withstood public relations blows amidst numerous labor lawsuits and bribery scandals, it appears that Wal-Mart has been shifting its new business away from its suburban megastores and more towards a leaner profile in urban markets. Offering organic and local food options, it appears Wal-Mart is now aiming at a new type of consumer: the health- and eco-conscious, more affluent urban resident.
Those living in some urban areas may be unaware of these shifts. While Wal-Mart has yet to establish a foothold in New York City, it has begun establishing stores in many urban centers with this focus on the provision of food. Rather than selling the entire range of household goods and consumer electronics, the corporation has opened up approximately 200 ‘neighborhood markets,’ smaller stores housing a grocery and a pharmacy. What urban neighborhoods is Wal-Mart approaching? In Chicago, it was the 37th Ward; in Seattle, Puget Sound; in New York, it was East New York, and in Los Angeles, as discussed, the neighborhood of Chinatown.
Why Chinatown? Wal-Mart’s media rep, Rachel Wall, asked me, “Do you know where the site actually is? It’s on the border of Chinatown—it’s unclear that it is even in the neighborhood.”
Yet this map shows the site, Grand Plaza, on Cesar Chavez and Grand, as a part of the neighborhood, and it is, in fact, just a few blocks from the main gate of Chinatown. Wal-Mart questioning whether the site is in Chinatown is indicative, in a sense, of the type of customer that it may be seeking to attract.
“Wal-Mart will never be an ethnic grocery,” said Wall. “This Wal-Mart will not be selling novelty items or trinkets. This is an opportunity for better outreach on our part. People are always pleasantly surprised when we explain the format of the store.”
Community advocates argue that Chinatown was a deliberate choice. “Wal-Mart probably thought no one would fight back because it’s primarily mono-lingual or a limited English-speaking population,” said Sophia Cheng, a member of CCED. “Wal-Mart reps are going around, asking residents to sign pro-Wal-Mart petitions without explaining to them what it is, without translation. An 18-year-old came to us and said Wal-Mart came to her grandmother’s house, and tried to get her to sign a petition, but doing it disrespectfully and not explaining anything. That’s what turned her against it.”
Moreover, those fighting the store’s construction disagree that Wal-Mart will not compete with Chinatown businesses. Nguyen, LAANE analyst, stated, “The existing markets in Chinatown have said they fear being put out of business by Wal-Mart. Most of these stores operate on very small margins and any decline in sales will dramatically impact them. The markets in Chinatown—many of them sell meat, vegetables, dry goods, and dairy. These stores are absolutely in direct competition with Wal-Mart. The neighborhood market will have a pharmacy, and Chinatown has something like nine pharmacies, which will all be impacted.”
But the push against Wal-Mart isn’t just about losing business. Cheng, who has been outreaching in the community, recounted, “A lot of people understand that their business will not be in direct competition to Wal-Mart. The most anti-Wal-Mart are the really old Chinese herbalists. They point behind them, and say, ‘Wal-Mart doesn’t know what this is; they won’t sell this.’ It’s not about narrow self-interest. Their whole thing is, it’s going to bring down the neighborhood. They don’t want it to be a gentrified place and displace low-income residents.
“If you were born and grew up in this neighborhood, it’s very personal and insulting to have people say to the residents, ‘It’s a crappy neighborhood with no resources.’”
What’s at stake: For organizations like the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, stopping Wal-Mart is part of a larger effort to envision a Chinatown that is inclusive of working-class immigrant families, that has policies for local hiring, supports small businesses, and improves environmental conditions. According to the Alliance’s director, Sissy Trinh, “LA has a plan for Chinatown and if we look at it, a lot of it involves things that are for gentrifiers: cafés, bars, restaurants along the LA River, and a plan called the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan that envisions nearly 7,000 units of new housing, and virtually all of it at market rate. The city is building for families that earn $80 to $90,000 a year. Obviously, [people who live in Chinatown] would be priced out. What does LA want to build? A city for the wealthy, or a city for all people?”
In the process of participating in the Wal-Mart outreach and campaign, SEACA has focused on educating their members about the planning process and the impacts of Wal-Mart on Chinatown. Trinh stated, “Generally, the Southeast Asian community is against the Wal-Mart…but for the Chinese businesses in Chinatown, it’s a little more complicated. They have a business improvement district association, they have a Chamber of Commerce. The Vietnamese community does not have this kind of organized business interest.”
Meanwhile, it is exactly those interests, along with Wal-Mart, who call groups like CCED ‘outsiders.’ George Yu, vice president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, is one of the spokespeople that the media and Wal-Mart frequently turn to. As soon as we got on the phone, he stated, “Look, you have to understand, 99 percent of the Chinatown community and Chinatown residents support this neighborhood market. Ninety-nine percent of the opposition comes from well outside of Chinatown. Chinatown has become the battleground between Wal-Mart and labor—but planning is not the place for a social agenda.” Other groups, like the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, echo this sentiment.
However, Trinh asserted, “Wal-Mart has been charging that groups like CCED are outsiders, saying they are not from the community. They are using this divide-and-conquer tactic. But SEACA has been around. We are an undeniable part of the Chinatown community.”
Although I never asked him about SEACA, Yu singled them out, “No one knows Chinatown businesses better than myself… SEACA reps a handful of high school students who have been alive for a far lesser time—with all due respect—than this space has been vacant. I’ve worked in Chinatown—again—long before Sissy [Trinh] was born. So please do not tell me they know what’s best for Chinatown.”
Phea, who is part of both SEACA and CCED, also clarified, “Everyone [in CCED] has a connection to Chinatown—they used to live here, have family here, come here on break. They are a part of Chinatown.” Cheng also added that spokespeople like George Yu doesn’t even live in Chinatown. He confirmed this, but asserted, “We are a free market economy, and Chinatown must evolve. All of this talk against Wal-Mart—it’s so arrogant in terms of telling this community what’s best for it. I assure you they all shop at Target or Wal-Mart in their neighborhood but they won’t allow it here—this makes absolutely no sense.”
Wal-Mart’s rep asked me to speak to local residents, by which she meant Grand Plaza residents who live above the proposed site, most of whom are seniors and 90 percent of Chinese ethnicity, according to John Hsu, the vice president of the Grand Plaza Tenant Association. However, he declined to connect me to any of the tenants, saying they wouldn’t want to speak to media. When I asked, he said that only 5 to 10 percent of the tenants spoke English. He assured me that the residents wanted the convenience of a grocery store downstairs, however. But again, are all grocery stores the same? Does Wal-Mart’s ability to construct quickly and expand into cities mean that it should be able to do so, without a public approval process?
Yu’s argument that planning should not be the place for a social agenda is echoed in a handful of editorials that argue something similar—that a legally permitted store like Wal-Mart should be able to move forward, because that is what planning should do—move things along regardless of politics. Yet groups that oppose the Walmart do not see the process as one for bureaucrats and city planners alone.
As part of their broader visioning process, SEACA has launched a campaign, called “This is My City Too.” It calls for affordable housing, parks, environmentally clean jobs, employment opportunities for local residents, and many other features. “For us, the campaign is not just about our community now, but about setting precedent for the rest of the city. If we have a good plan, then South LA, East LA, they can all say ‘We want that plan!’”
Meanwhile, Trinh says, “Wal-Mart has been so creative in their tactics. So we can’t underestimate them. We need to be creative. We are not going to influence the Walton family [the original owners of Wal-Mart]. Our work is about asking: Who can we influence?”
Yet speaking to community members about Wal-Mart, even those opposed to the store opening, is not an easy task. As Cheng shared, “Trying to make people realize that the process is still going on, that it’s not over—this is the hardest job.” Phea, who talks to community members every weekend, agreed. “Many small businesses are opposed, but they feel defeated because of how big Wal-Mart is. Our outreach is to try and encourage them that together we can stop it. That we are a big part of Chinatown so we should have a bigger say.”
Meanwhile in New York, where the Walton family has donated to city programs and council members, advocates are preparing for a fight as well. In Flushing, where approximately 70 percent of commerce is based in small businesses, the impact of a Wal-Mart would undoubtedly be felt. Steven Choi, the executive director of Flushing-based Minkwon Center for Community Action, shared his thoughts. “If Wal-Mart comes to Flushing, we would be seriously concerned about the impact that it would have on the greater Flushing area. We want to make sure that the community has access to affordable goods—but also good jobs, strong small businesses, and a thriving local economy.”
Walking down Union Street, I imagine the shopkeepers and the elderly street vendor competing against the Walton family. In fact, Flushing is due for major development in the coming years, from the Waterfront plan to Willets Point to the Flushing Commons Project, many of which predict new groups and classes of residents and businesses.
Who gets to speak for immigrant communities – business leaders or emerging community organizers? Is there a way in which planning could take into account the conflict without just letting the loudest voice win?