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Wal-Mart, Dudley Square, and the Battle over the Big Box

Posted by Alex Pearlman  October 18, 2011 08:30 AM

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walmartroxburyboston.jpgBy Matt McQuaid

In 1961, as Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba, Pastor Medina fled to the United States with his wife and two daughters, in search of a better life. Thirteen years later, after working many different jobs, Medina opened a store that sold plantains on Washington Street in Roxbury. Today, that store is Tropical Foods Supermarket, and it’s the go-to grocery store for many Dudley Square residents. The store has done well by catering to the the area’s largely Caribbean and Hispanic community, and, like many small businesses, the proprietors have built their success on knowing the needs of their customers.

But Tropical Foods, along with many other businesses built by immigrants in search of the American Dream, could soon be wiped out by the most feared force in retail: Wal-Mart. Profits from superstores in rural and suburban communities have declined, and while there has been no formal announcement, it has been widely speculated that the company may set up shop in the Lower Roxbury business district in the near future.

They’re not the only ones. The increasing gentrification and redevelopment of many of Boston’s neighborhoods has led to a dramatic increase in major corporations looking to move into urban communities. The battle over Whole Foods moving to Hyde Square is a perfect example, although they’ve made some effort to work with local businesses. Can the same be said for Wal-Mart?

“While we still do not have any announced projects in the city of Boston, we think our stores can be part of the solution for folks that need a job or want a more affordable grocery option in their neighborhood.” said Steve Restivo, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, via e-mail. “We think residents should choose where they shop and work, period. Unfortunately, some of the louder voices in this debate don’t represent the majority opinion.”

Roxbury -- and Dudley Square in particular -- is a site of interest for Wal-Mart in part due to the strategic development of the area over the years. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan, an initiative by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, has put a considerable amount of time and resources into making sure that the neighborhood is on a fast track to sustainable economic growth. And while the plan has helped the formerly-blighted Dudley Square grow a great deal in a short period of time, many are worried that Wal-Mart could hinder the progress that’s been made in Lower Roxbury.

“[Wal-Mart] does not fit the community's vision as articulated in the Strategic Roxbury Master Plan,” said John Barros, Executive Director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative via e-mail. “The Plan calls for sustainable and equitable economic growth for Roxbury residents and development that strengthens our retail district. We need to look for economic and retail development projects that meet these goals instead of proposals that would hurt our local businesses and negatively impact our quality of life.”

But, as Restivo noted, Wal-Mart brings jobs to communities. “We offer our associates competitive wages, affordable benefits, and the chance to build a career," he said. "And in many communities across the country, our stores actually serve as magnets for growth and development.‬” Many contend, however, that the wages Wal-Mart pays are considerably less than many grocery stores, particularly unionized ones, and costs are often passed onto the communities they reside in.

The chain has also racked up an impressive rap sheet of OSHA violations, violations of child labor laws, failure to provide adequate health insurance for workers, and numerous immigration offenses. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart was in the Supreme Court fighting the biggest class action lawsuit in history. Furthermore, factoring in the effects Wal-Mart would have on local businesses, building this new store could actually create a net loss of jobs for Dudley Square. In fact, a 2007 study found that for every job created by Wal-Mart, 1.4 jobs are lost as local businesses are wiped out.

If Wal-Mart does want to move to Roxbury, it will have to get past plenty of opponents. Mayor Menino has already expressed considerable opposition to the move, and a number of city councilors, notably Tito Jackson of District 7, have also vocalized opposition to the big box behemoth setting up shop in Dudley Square.

Regardless of whether the most controversial retailer in America sets up shop in Roxbury, it’s going to be quite the fight

Do you shop at Boston's chain stores, or do you prefer local, independent retailers?

Photo by wachovia_138 (Flickr)

About Matt -- I'm a lifelong Democrat and writer of a politically-oriented column, "Banned in D.C." Hobbies include watching TV and listening to super-intense bands with mad-scary dudes that have tattoos and stuff.

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