Is Walmart in Chicago a bad thing, or the worst thing?

[From The A.V. Club Chicago, with David Wolinsky / April 21, 2010]

Andrew: Well David, the city has postponed its big decision on whether Walmart should be allowed to set up a second store in city limits, this time on 104th Street just west of the Bishop Ford. After receiving a recommendation of approval by the Plan Commission, the retailer must now get the thumbs-up from the Zoning Department and, should that happen, the blessing of City Council. With the vote now pushed out until May 7, perhaps this will give them time to grasp just how horrible an idea this is.

Let me just state for the record, I really, really, really hope this doesn’t go through. Aside from the usual anti-corporate, pseudo-hippie reasoning that says all progress is bad, what can the biggest of big-box stores really bring to Chicago—and at what expense? The project plan is based on a 270-acre footprint: 270 acres never to be used for new green space, or a school, or affordable housing, or locally owned businesses, or anything that would actually make Chicagoans any better off in the long run (not that discount mouthwash isn’t spectacular in its own right). In fairness, the plan also projects creation of 4,000 jobs—although only 700 of those are at the store itself. If Walmart represents short-term economic possibility, doesn’t it also represent long-term cultural suicide?

David: Wow, really? You equate Walmart with suicide? Maybe Walmart should start embracing something a bit cheerier than the smiley face as its mascot. Now, I’m about the last guy to swoop to a large chain store’s defense, but you know what? Don’t let journalism’s boom days right now cloud your judgment, Andrew: The economy is in the shitter. Seven hundred jobs might not be even half of the 4,000 created by this potential new store, but it is a hell of a lot more than zero. Unemployment in Illinois right now is 11.5 percent, up since February, and the highest it’s been since 1983. These may not be the most career-minded or rewarding jobs around, but they’re stable. And it’s also the same reason that the Austin neighborhood had a Walmart grace city limits back in 2006—and that one was projected to create only 400 jobs. Would you rather have jobs or have unions? Or would you rather just cry wolf?

To be fair, earlier this year it was reported that almost all the jobs created by the Austin Walmart were lost due to store closings elsewhere. So, you know. The new local Walmart was safe—other jobs elsewhere were not. That’s a kind of job security you just can’t bank on nowadays amid layoffs and downsizing. Let’s let those be someone else’s problems!

Andrew: I get your point, but I think you’re also looking at this way too simplistically. Walmart, as you pointed out, doesn’t really create any jobs, but merely aggregates them under one blue roof—so who does that really help?

Look, there’s really no way you can say tying such a mass of job prospects and resources for an entire swath of the city to one store can be healthy. (The upcoming taxpayer-funded Target in Uptown has already shown how little a giant promises for neighborhood residents, with no positions being set aside for locals.) Even ignoring less tangible problems like the erosion of local character and the dangers of ceding ground to an all-consuming corporate monstrosity, consider this: What happens if the store closes? A Walmart isn’t the easiest building to repurpose, and you can’t describe a chain so famously fond of a cut-and-run growth strategy as “stable” either, so what becomes of those 270 acres when this is over—and of the devastated businesses left in Walmart’s wake? Opening the megastore might be a quick fix, but you and I both know that improving communities in any lasting, meaningful way is a lot more complicated than handing people a pair of navy blue polo shirts.

David: It definitely is more complicated than some stopgap solution, but look around you: Everything around us is turning into one giant strip mall. Do we really need a second Target in the Loop on State Street when there’s a perfectly accessible one just over a mile away in the South Loop on Roosevelt? And, true, a Walmart isn’t the easiest building to repurpose, but eventually the economy will turn around. We shouldn’t even bother creating 700 jobs because some of them might be lost years down the road? Even after all the jobs lost by the company, it still stands as the nation’s biggest employer, with 1.2 million workers punching the clock—a number equal to the population of Dallas, Texas. And while Dallas is an enormous strip mall itself, and a lot of horrible things are blamed on Walmart, the major chain isn’t singlehandedly responsible for the erosion of local culture. That boat sailed ages ago, Andrew. So while I share your defeatist stance on the matter, I propose you change your tune. Let’s all just enjoy the ride and the values!