Today, despite the disapproval of the city of Los Angeles and many of its residents, the impending construction of a Walmart in Chinatown continues to menace members of the local community, business owners and visitors — including USC students.
For more than 70 years, small businesses have thrived on the streets of Chinatown. Customers can dine at hole-in-the-wall restaurants and browse in fruit and vegetable shops, meat markets and boutiques. Storeowners and staff ask prices and hawk goods in their own language. Some visitors wander around, soaking in the reality of another culture at work.
Enter Walmart, the pinnacle of mass commercialism and the scourge of working class people everywhere. The idea of opening such a business in a neighborhood like Chinatown infuriated Los Angeles and its residents when it was initially proposed in March. The L.A. City Council even tried to pass an emergency ban on opening chain stores in Chinatown, though they were unable to do so in time.
Walmart threatens three essential elements of our beloved and unique L.A. community: business culture, aesthetics and morale.
Larger chain retailers like Walmart damage small business appeal. They can manufacture, transport and distribute in bulk, meaning they can keep their prices lower and their inventory more consistent than small businesses can. Their physical and systemic size also allows them to produce and sell a wider range of items, so customers can buy all their goods in one place.
Unfortunately, students like these type of stores. What college student doing last-minute dorm shopping doesn’t go for cheap prices and speed? But if we start liking those stores too much, brute market forces will soon leave them as the only kind of stores left.
Small business communities, such as the Venice Beach Boardwalk or the stores and small restaurants on Vermont Avenue, are what allow these endangered retailers a fighting chance. Their aggregation creates a simulated experience of one-stop shopping convenience, as well as the chance to develop a particular cultural appeal, such as a street performance or a network for non-English speakers, associated with shopping at their stores.
When large businesses like Walmart infiltrate local communities, these benefits disappear. As small businesses are forced to compete more fiercely to survive, they turn against one another as well, and the cultural fluidity and collaborative atmosphere that give them an advantage over larger stores are soon lost.
If the community offers a particular ethno-cultural experience, the big store can also delegitimize the community’s ethnic or cultural character.
In a The New York Times article last week, Chinatown native Christlily Chiv said that the arrival of commercial corporations in the neighborhood would “erase the cultural community and what it stood for in the first place.”
A space that has historically served as a haven for Chinese immigrants to acculturate themselves, for Chinese students and travelers to have a piece of home and for other Angelenos to get a taste of China faces extinction by, instead, becoming a cheap imitation.
The community would also be hurt by the nature of Walmart itself. Walmart has been repeatedly criticized for hiring non-union workers and for grossly underpaying them, particularly in countries like China.
The construction of Walmart is thus a significant, symbolic blow, demoralizing the substantial working class and immigrant population that lives, works and shops in Chinatown.
A Walmart in Chinatown threatens the livelihood of Chinatown residents and the cultural offerings of Los Angeles. It is a mistake for the construction to go forward and a shame for everyone living in Los Angeles, ourselves included.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.