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The Walmart Empire Strikes Black

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The Walmart Empire Strikes Black
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The 9th Ward is one of the poorest, most isolated sections in Chicago. On the Far South Side, beyond the reach of the El, it takes in the hip-hop shopping strip at 111th and Michigan, and Altgeld Gardens, the forlorn housing project at the bottom of the city.

The 9th also fits one famous definition of a benighted neighborhood: you have to walk more than five blocks to buy an orange.

Ald. Anthony Beale’s proposal to build a Walmart on the site of the old Ryerson Steel Plant at 111th Street and the Dan Ryan has divided South Side progressives who ordinarily find a lot to agree on.

Beale says he invited a slew of retailers to his ward, including Costco, Dominick’s, Ikea, Jewel and Target. But only cut-rate Wal-mart, which specializes in serving poor communities, agreed to build on the Far South Side.

Now Beale has to get the proposal past the City Council. Ald. Sandi Jackson, who has struggled to bring chain stores to her ward, is all in favor of Walmart.

“Poor communities that lack retail and industry are unable to employ its citizens and are unable to generate a tax base which also has a direct impact on public education and human services,” Jackson told the Chicago Defender. “Additionally, many urban areas are food deserts which also impact public health.”

But Ald. Toni Preckwinkle is a staunch opponent of Walmart and all it stands for.

“I told (Beale) I wouldn’t support it,” she said. “The problem is not the transformation, it’s about the anchor tenant. My concerns about Wal-mart still stand. It is a company which has numerous civil rights suits, gender and race-based, against the store.”

Among black aldermen, most Walmart supporters represent remote, impoverished wards desperate for any kind of business. Preckwinkle, whose 4th Ward encompasses middle-class Bronzeville and upper-class Kenwood, isn’t in that situation. Also, she needs the support of unions in her campaign for county board president, and unions loathe Walmart (though Walmart just this week agreed to hold talks with them). Preckwinkle comes from a progressive, reformist background, so Walmart’s union-busting, low wages and alleged sexist employment policies are anathema to everything she has fought for as a politician.

Beale would actually find more support for Walmart among conservative Republicans than progressive Democrats. State sen. Bill Brady has talked of using the Walmart controversy as a wedge issue to attract support from inner-city voters, charging that Democrats are sacrificing poor blacks’ quality of life in order to curry favor with unions.

“The big box issue is helping us,” Brady said in an interview with Ward Room earlier this month. “It means fresh food, jobs, affordable food.”

But there aren’t any conservative Republicans on the Chicago City Council, which will have to approve a Walmart. Beale’s proposal goes before a city council zoning committee on May 7. If passed, it would be taken up by the full council on May 12. If you want to see Sandi Jackson and Toni Preckwinkle disagree on something, be there.

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