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Wal-Mart opponents mobilize Roxbury

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

A powerful giant has turned its gaze on Roxbury, raising the hackles of local activists and community leaders. Wal-Mart, the national retail giant known for big box stores located outside of urban areas, has begun a campaign to place scaled-down versions of its mega-stores within cities. In recent months, the company has shown interest in Roxbury’s Dudley Square area.

A Wal-Mart store, even scaled down, brings low prices and an influx of construction and retail jobs. Some would consider this welcome relief in a neighborhood where unemployment remains far above the national and state averages. But a growing group of advocates and elected officials worry that the store would offer only poverty-wage, low-benefit jobs and that its presence would deal a crushing blow to existing Dudley area businesses.

No one knows for sure if or when Wal-Mart will actually come to Roxbury — no official proposal has been put forth — but opponents are mobilizing to alert the community about the possible effects.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, the We Want Good Jobs Coalition hosts a community forum about Wal-Mart at 6 p.m. at the Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library. The coalition comprises more than a dozen social justice and economic development organizations, including Union of Minority Neighborhoods, City Life/Vida Urbana, Dudley Square Main Streets and Massachusetts Jobs With Justice.

Speakers slated for the forum include Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, whose district includes Dudley Square, and at least one Wal-Mart employee.

Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, said his group is not necessarily saying no to Wal-Mart altogether, but demanding that the store make changes to offer fairer practices in hiring, pay and promotions, better health care options and the freedom to form unions without intimidation. He cited a litany of widely held concerns about Wal-Mart — including bad jobs and working conditions, a reputation for discrimination and a history of wiping out small businesses.

“And if two years from now they move out, the small businesses are gone and it’s too late,” he added. “We’re just very concerned.”

Councilor Jackson opposes Wal-Mart, as does Mayor Thomas Menino. Both have said the retail giant would hurt local businesses just when Dudley Square seems poised for real revitalization. Positive signs include the $115 million redevelopment in the works for the long-dormant Ferdinand building.

In an interview with the Banner, Jackson said Wal-Mart’s entry would “destabilize the sensitive ecosystem” of Dudley Square.

“The analogy I use,” he said, “is if you own a fish tank, you don’t put other fish in that will eat the existing fish. We need companies whose business model is not based on putting other businesses out of business.”

Certainly, there are people in District 7 who would welcome Wal-Mart’s prices on groceries and other items and would push for any jobs rather than no jobs. But Jackson said he finds that once people get into a conversation about the reality of Wal-Mart’s practices, they tend to change their mind.

“We do want jobs,” he said, “and yes, we do want economic development, but we have standards.” He envisions industries such as life sciences, green technology and manufacturing bringing higher-quality employment to the Dudley area, though at this point no such companies have specific plans to locate in Roxbury. “We have an offering that is attractive and valuable, and we won’t just take anything for it,” he said.

Jackson said he did not know the specific sites Wal-Mart is eyeing, but gave examples of streets such as Harrison Avenue or Bartlett Street that have vacant parcels. Others have speculated that Melnea Cass Boulevard holds sites of interest to Wal-Mart.

More opportunities to become informed about Wal-Mart continue into fall. On Sept. 29, an evening event at Roxbury’s Haley House Bakery Café will include screenings of two films, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” by Robert Greenwald and “The War Over Walmart,” a Press Pass TV mini-documentary.

Nina LaNegra, organizer and facilitator of the event, said she hopes the gathering causes people to “wake up” and be better equipped to ask the next questions.

“I think there are some very smart people in the Dudley Square area with a strong love of the community, and I’m looking forward to having them in the same room,” said LaNegra, a longtime Roxbury resident who now lives in the South End. “I’m not saying ‘don’t let Wal-Mart come to Roxbury.’ I’m saying let the people decide. Not be led by either side as to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ — but really grapple with the issues.”

Oct. 22 brings another chance to view “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” at the Dudley branch library at 2 p.m., in a screening presented by the Hawthorne Area Association (HAA), a Roxbury neighborhood group.

HAA member Jennifer Rose-Wood is one of the organizers of the library film screening. “We want to explore important questions,” she explained at a recent meeting of an HAA subcommittee formed to examine the Wal-Mart issue. “What kind of a company is Wal-Mart? What impact will it have? Is this the kind of company we want in our neighborhood?”