Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No Wal-Mart for Union Square

"Please be advised that Rosie’s office did some research regarding a Wal-Mart opening at Union Square. To the best of our knowledge these rumors are not based on any solid evidence that Wal-Mart has an interest in Union Square. All the research we have done says that the spaces available do not meet the retail giant’s specifications and that they never made any overture to do business there. None-the-less Rosie hears your objections loud and clear and encourages you to distribute your point of view as widely as possible."

This was a portion of a response from Rosie Mendez's office to a letter from a concerned St. Marks Place resident which reads:

Dear Councilmember Mendez:

Greetings from St. Mark's Place. I've recently read that the Wal-Mart corporation is trying to gain a foothold in the Union Square area. As a constituent living in the East Village, and as a local architecture writer who treasures the unique culture, heritage, and built environment of our city, I would like to urge you to use all available means to prevent that corporation from opening anywhere in New York. Not in Union Square, not in Brooklyn, not in Queens: nowhere in our city, please. Not now, not ever, not here... and not even if they swear on a stack of every major culture's holy books that they'll pull an ideological 180-degree turn and start supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. No matter what promises they make, Wal-Mart simply doesn't belong in New York City.

With a disgraceful record of corporate behavior and a business model premised on exurban sprawl, automobile dependence, a work force with no better options, and a bland commercial monoculture, Wal-Mart represents everything ugly and mediocre and unjust about our nation, the exact opposite of the values that progressive Americans take pride in. Part of the case against Wal-Mart is simply economic: Wal-Mart destroys local economies, puts people out of work, damages local environments with auto traffic, degrades local pay-scale standards, treats workers like cattle, and evades its responsibilities as a major employer to provide its workers with decent health care. I'm sure you've heard the grim stories about workers locked into stores, mandatory work hours off the clock, petty efforts to claw back legal settlements from workers with health problems, exploitation of Chinese labor under conditions that border on slavery -- all the things that make the Wal-Mart name stink worldwide. The "low prices" that Wal-Mart offers on its goods are no bargain at all: they merely shift the costs of its profiteering onto the people and places that have the least power to bear them. (The necessary statistics and narratives on all this, as you're probably already aware, are available at walmartwatch.com.)

But the argument is not limited to economics. It's about aesthetic standards and cultural diversity, too -- the unique strengths of New York City, as robust as solid rock but not immune to erosion. Wal-Mart is both a creature of the sprawl culture and a vector of that particular disease; it is the antithesis of everything that makes urban life (particularly NYC life) vibrant and distinctive. Our city thrives and maintains its flavor by supporting the small businesses and activities that offer opportunities to recent immigrants -- both from other nations and from other parts of the US. I am one of many "New Yorkers by choice," people who moved here from other states precisely because our city's cultural activity, walkable-scale street life, intelligent discourse, and human diversity present a highly attractive alternative to everything tiresome and predictable about Flyoverland and Generica.

Giant-scaled retail outlets, the bloated organizations that have turned so much of the rest of the country into such a dreary place, are utterly incompatible with the "New York-ness" of New York. Wal-Mart and Wal-Martism are exactly what many of us came here to avoid. If they spread here, they'll have no more respect for the NYC way of life than a metastatic tumor cell has for the health of its host.
We need many things here -- affordable housing, decent jobs, better transit, better and fairer enforcement of the laws, expanded support for the arts and for artists, reliable health care for everyone -- but we don't need $1.89 boxes of detergent at the cost of our civic soul, our dignity, our wage levels, and the livelihood of our neighborhood's mom-and-pop enterprises.

As poet Bob Holman, proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, once told me in a conversation about our neighborhood, "We have nothing to lose but our chains!" Chain stores, of course, are what he was referring to. There are too many of them here already. Wal-Mart is the worst of them, and when they come knocking here, they should be told decisively that they are undesirable and unwelcome.

Thanks for your attention and consideration, and best of luck in defending the irreplaceable values of our city and our neighborhood.

Best regards,
Bill Millard,
X St. Mark's Place
New York, NY 10003