Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chicago versus Wal-Mart

A heated debate is going on in Chicago right now about whether to allow a second Wal-Mart store to be built within city limits. The proposed super-center would be located at 83rd and Stewart in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side. Supporters of its construction are chiefly concerned with jobs, 500 of which the new store would provide. They also advocate for fresh food given that Wal-Mart would offer groceries in an area relatively deplete of such sustenance.

Opponents of Wal-Mart are critical of its refusal to allow union protection. Lack of such protection makes those 500 new jobs somewhat less attractive. Their existence could also threaten the integrity of thousands of unionized jobs in the city. National criticism regarding low wages, poor working conditions, and inadequate health care is also cited in opposition.

Recent developments include:

My interest in this debate was sparked by reading an excellent blog post titled, "Walmart: maybe it's better than nothing?" In it, Megan Cottrell admits, "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 is a tough but simple realization. In a neighborhood where the unemployment rate is 20% (Chicago's is 11.3%), people simply need jobs.

"We can't wait for the Olympics," said Alderman Howard Brookins at the July 29 City Council meeting. "People are dying now. People are starving now. People are in stores now. There is no convenient time. There's never gonna be a perfect time. If we cannot stand up for the people in the worst economic downturn since the Depression, when can we stand up for people?"

Ald. Howard Brookins makes a convincing argument, as does Chicago-based hip hop artist Rhymefest. In an interview with Chicago Public Radio, he provides a good summary of the debate and an explanation for why he supports a Wal-Mart in Chatham. Rhymefest speaks on behalf of Jobs or Else, a group responsible for pro-Wal-Mart demonstrations around Chicago.

Cottrell also mentions Food Deserts in her blog post, a concept that I was first introduced to last fall. Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group defines Food Deserts as large geographic areas with no or distant mainstream grocery stores. Mari came to speak for Northwestern Community Development Corps in November of 2008 as part of their Undergraduate Lecture Series on Race, Poverty, & Inequality. Her firm's 2006 study, Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, identified over 600,000 Chicagoans who live in a Food Desert.

In June her firm released the Chicago Food Desert Progress Report which concludes that between 2006 and 2009 the size of the Chicago food desert was reduced by 1.4 square miles. "The report provides very interesting examples of the block-by-block impact of stores moving in and out of the city," says Peter Tatian of the Urban Institute. "In Chatham, a food oasis, 2 grocers moved out, resulting in worse food access scores for 142 nearby blocks and roughly 16,000 people and an expansion of the food desert into Chatham." Chatham?! Maybe they do need a Wal-Mart after all.

Looking at the progress report, I notice a handful of maps that show Chicago's food deserts. And, of course, when I see maps, I think Mapping For Justice. At Tutor/Mentor Connection, Mike Trakan creates maps that look at the relationship among poverty, community resources, school performance, and locations of non-school tutoring/mentoring facilities for K-12 students. I went to our program locator to look up assets in 60620, the zip code of the proposed Wal-Mart site. There are seven tutor/mentor programs in the area. It would be great if we could map food sources among the current options. Mike says we should be getting some data soon. I wrote Mari about a possible collaboration, too.

As you can see, this story represents a convergence of a lot of ideas. From jobs, to Olympics, to hip hop, to food deserts, to maps, to tutor/mentor programs... my mind keeps firing. I've done my best to summarize the experience, but I do apologize if my run through has seemed scattered. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you the opportunity to learn more about this debate and think critically about its possible outcomes.

For more information, check out Walmart’s Chicago Community Action Network and Our Community. Our Choice.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of the issues! We talk about tutoring and mentoring all the time, but there are so many issues that coincide with the poverty and violence that the children we're trying to help, face. When a kid's not getting proper nutrition, his ability to learn is compromised. Everything's related.