There Goes the Neighborhood! Whole Foods Comes to Downtown as Walmart Comes to Chinatown

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Courtesy of Retailmania via Flickr

If the trajectory of a neighborhood can be judged by its new businesses, the arrival of two large grocery stores in the historic and centrally located districts of downtown Los Angeles and adjacent Chinatown, offer different implications for the present and future of the two communities.

Upon news of a Whole Foods coming to Downtown LA,  CurbedLA proclaimed: “gentrification is now complete.” Whole Foods is known for its generally pricier offerings, and it’s not completely surprising that one is coming to downtown, an area the L.A. Times recently described as “a neighborhood with an increasingly hip and well-heeled residential population.”

Meanwhile Chinatown, nestled north-east of Downtown, is also expecting a new grocery store, but one very different from Whole Foods. After a back and forth between Walmart and Chinatown residents that has gone on for over a year now, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), a volunteer-based organization that has staunchly opposed Walmart’s proposed store in Chinatown, has expressed concern for its imminent opening. CurbedLA reported last Friday that a Walmart sign went up at the site of the proposed grocery store and that it is set to open by the end of August.

Courtesy of david_shankbone via Flickr (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Walmart is known for its low prices and is oftentimes a controversial addition to neighborhoods, where many claim the chain wipes out small businesses and drives down wages. Chinatown is a neighborhood that for years has been home to mom and pop stores. Others less wary of a Walmart in Chinatown have pointed out that the departure of many small businesses in the neighborhood has left a void that a larger grocery store could fill. The new Walmart will occupy a 33,000 sq ft. space on W Cesar E. Chavez and be one of their smaller “neighborhood markets.”

I interviewed Sophia Cheng, a community organizer with CCED to find out more about the group’s concerns about the arrival of Walmart in Chinatown.

Chamberlain: “What are some of the main concerns of Chinatown’s residents?”

Cheng: “For residents, the issues are rent and their rights as tenants, because Chinatown is over 90% renter. Gentrification is another big one. For small businesses the issues are similar—but instead of residential rent there’s commercial rent. A few decades ago Chinatown was the only place you could go to get certain food and groceries—a lot of people who used to go to Chinatown now go to the San Gabriel Valley. Chinatown is in a transition stage and I think businesses are grappling with how to maintain and how to build a thriving local economy.”

Chamberlain: “Are there Chinatown residents who think Walmart would be a good thing for the neighborhood?”

Cheng: “There are definitely residents who like the idea of ‘consumer choice’ and cheap goods. That’s very real. And for our organization, one thing we try to point out, it’s the high cost of low prices because why are these goods so cheap? Part of it is that Walmart is really famous for paying as little as they can to their workers, not providing benefits, keeping people at part time, and also contracting out, working with contractors with very bad labor practices. So we totally acknowledge, yes the stuff is cheap.

Chinatown circa 1988. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In terms of Chinatown planning, it’s important to have responsible planning and responsible development and community review. For example, this Walmart is going to be opened at a pretty busy intersection at Grand and Cesar Chavez, but there hasn’t been a traffic study for over 20 years because developers don’t necessarily have to do lots of studies. Lots has changed since then—for example in the past decade a new high school has opened up across the street and new apartments have opened.”

In a Texas town where a Walmart didn’t succeed, the former store was converted into an award-winning public library and became the largest single-story library in the U.S.

What do you think about the arrival of these grocery stores in these communities? Will Whole Foods propel gentrification further in downtown? Will Walmart drive out small business?