The Wal-Mart Debate
by Peter Zelchenko July 31, 2009

Did you get the call this week from the poll asking if you wanted a Wal-Mart? Did you think you'd get a fair and balanced presentation of the question? Did you also expect to get a clear picture from the media of the nature of the poll or the problems inherent in the Wal-Mart model?

The Tribune reported that the automated poll stated the plus side of the argument was that the new Wal-Mart would provide "more than 400 jobs and 'a wider variety of of fresh groceries and other goods.'" But they miscued by saying that the poll claimed "opponents 'say the jobs are not good enough.'" I got the call myself. It was presented substantially as follows:

  • "Press 1 if you support a new Wal-Mart in Chicago, because it will provide more than 400 jobs and a wider variety of fresh groceries and other goods."
  • "Press 2 if you oppose a new Wal-Mart in Chicago, because the jobs it will bring are not good enough."

Gee, nothing like putting words in the mouths of 75,000 people.

Crain's also reported positively on polling. Their rather puffy headline reads: "Chicagoans Support 2nd Wal-Mart: Poll". But this seems to be a different poll, apparently much more thorough. Still, it would be nice to see their methodology and question list, and perhaps get the other side of the argument.

Chicagoist took a more helpful position, emphasizing that the polls were the brainchild of Wal-Mart's public relations army and providing other balance. (See other background commentary here and here.)

Veteran Chicago journalist Dennis Byrne, on his shiny, new ChicagoNow blog, gushed about the potential of a Wal-Mart and lionized its hero, Rev. Leon Finney, as if there weren't a few hundred thousand other African-Americans in Chicago who might have differing opinions.

But then Byrne himself says it best when he quotes one of his adoring fans:

"Dennis Byrne...[and others] have been so consistently wrong on so many issues...[they should] open barbershops, where they could pontificate to their hearts' content but with much less potential damage to the body politic." --Moti Rieber, Chicago Tribune, Letter to the Editor, Feb. 12, 2007

If Mayor Daley has so many black friends, why is it that whenever there's a need to show support from the black community for some controversial idea, the Finneys are all he can ever find? The only supporters of the Wal-Mart were Finney's busload of blind followers from Woodlawn, who, no doubt, he and his wife (director of the organization) lured with chips and soda just like when they brought them to City Hall to support putting the Children's Museum in Grant Park. When I polled 15 or 20 of them about the museum, none had any strong opinion, and several didn't even know what they had been brought downtown for.

Tom Tresser, open-space advocate and current leader of No Games Chicago, objects to Finney's abuse of The Woodlawn Organization, the historic grassroots group nurtured to life in the late 1950s by Bishop Arthur Brazier and legendary organizer Saul Alinsky. "They got started by sending buses to City Hall to challenge white power...and 45 years later, they send buses to City Hall to be a stooge for white power," Tresser recently complained to me. I've admonished Finney publicly several times that he mustn't do this, but of course it's hard to resist when your primary means of support comes from a white mayor.

Wal-Mart's public-relations army also planted the now-famous term "food desert" in our minds, citing a 2006 study (PDF) by researcher Mari Gallagher. This study, funded by the generally big-commerce LaSalle Bank, was Gallagher's debut into punditry. In it she coined the term, which characterizes large, predominantly black swaths of the South and West Sides as places where there are no grocery stores for miles.

It was not an original idea, only an old concept called, less inspiringly, the "supermarket shortage" -- in a fancy new package. The results have been used to great effect in arguing for more Dominick's, Jewels, and Wal-Marts, but practically nothing else. I and many others have pointed out to Gallagher and the city that there are many smaller-scale solutions that fall between buying milk at the gas station and the national profit center -- such as Andy's, Pete's, Fair Play, and even Aldi.

But Gallagher has been too busy making piles of money to bother with details. In case you aren't convinced you know which side Gallagher's bread is buttered on, she's now on Wal-Mart's payroll (PDF), cutting down a Loyola study which claims that the existing Chicago store may already be causing damage. (Read the Loyola report here (PDF).)

If all else fails -- if, after seeing the curious melange of Chicago politics and Wal-Mart executive cupidity, you're still thinking that maybe more Wal-Marts is not such a bad idea -- then you should probably watch Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

Unfortunately, this movie was based chiefly on the boring world of facts and evidence -- not on hype and slant, not on expensive PR firms, token blacks, glassy-eyed journalists, and pinstripe research -- so it's not well promoted. Why not host a screening of this movie? Now would be a perfect time.

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