By Jeremy B. White
When Erii Lowe goes shopping in East New York, he likes to have a lot of options. Money is tight and the small bodegas that dominate the neighborhood are too expensive, so he travels to four or five stores a day, seeking discounts he finds in the newspaper.
On a recent afternoon, the pursuit of cheap goods brought him to Junior’s Food Outlets on New Lots Avenue, a small grocery store whose sparse offerings include a produce section consisting of a few bags of bananas, apples, carrots and peppers on a small shelf lined with flattened cardboard boxes.
The possibility of Walmart moving to East New York, among the most impoverished and blighted neighborhoods in the city, has touched off a vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate over whether the store would represent a benefit or a setback for the neighborhood. For Lowe, it would simply be another option to help him get by — and though the jobs it would provide are likely to be low-paying, he says that something is better than nothing.
“Look, a job’s a job,” Lowe said. “If you want to do the right thing you’ve got to start somewhere.”
When the City Council held a hearing in January on the possibility of Walmart coming to New York, academics, business owners and council members lined up to excoriate the store for what they said were exploitative employment practices and to warn of how it would devastate local commerce. Walmart declined to attend a hearing in a letter to the Council that charged the hearing would likely be one-sided.
But for residents like Lowe, the simple fact of a store offering jobs and cheap goods outweighs the criticism. More than a quarter of East New York residents live below the poverty line, and nearly half of its population over 16 is not in the labor force — meaning they have stopped looking for work altogether.
In a neighborhood coping with this type of economic stagnation, the prospect of a large store providing jobs has an obvious appeal. But some argue that a well-documented pattern of offering low wages and no benefits — a recent study by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio estimated that the average annual earnings for a Walmart employee are $20,774 — would consign those who work there to poverty, or that it would shutter vital local businesses.
Walmart has been reluctant to speak directly to the press, but has argued in letters and press releases that it offers a competitive wage and opportunities for advancement. In the letter in which it declined to attend the January hearing, Walmart executives touted the store’s contribution to communities, “from saving people money and creating jobs, to serving as a magnet for growth and development and supporting local non-profits.” While the chain hasn’t formally announced details of the potential store, the development firm Related Cos has discussed leasing Walmart a 650,000 square foot space at the Gateway II Center in East New York, which Related already owns, according to Crain’s New York.
In his 2003 book “How East New York Became a Ghetto,” Walter Thabit, who worked in East New York as an urban planner in the late 60’s and early 70’s, described how predatory real estate practices and a persistent lack of investment in jobs or good schools eviscerated the neighborhood.
“The East New York ghetto is not part of the mainstream economic system,” Thabit wrote. “It is part of an alternate social and economic system.”
The question, then, is whether Walmart represents a long-absent economic engine that would help East New York to shed its reputation as a benighted area disconnected from the rest of the city, or whether it would exacerbate the area’s problems by making poverty wages the only option. In a sign of the question’s divisiveness, the issue has put the construction union that would build the store at odds with the retail unions that have opposed it.
Ana Aguierre, the executive director of the East New York social services organization United Community Centers, said that a recent public meeting convened by State Senator John Sampson to talk about budget cuts was dominated by discussion of Walmart. Aguierre said a large number of people in the forum were in favor of the store, citing high unemployment. But she is wary of what type of employment the store will bring.
“I really don’t believe that Walmart will resolve our unemployment issues,” she said. “It may give the impression that it will resolve them, maybe in the short term, but at the end I think that Walmart is part of the problem.”
But Bill Wilkins, the director of economic development for the Local Development Corporation of East New York, is not so sure. While he noted that small businesses would undoubtedly suffer, he said that people would continue to shop at local businesses that are more convenient or offer goods Walmart does not. He also acknowledged the appeal of readily available jobs and of products that would help families stretch their budgets farther.
“There’s a lot of conjecture of Walmart being the evil empire, but why is that so?” he said. “An issue of this magnitude and importance should be debated and discussed and it should also be done on an academic and neutral level.”
In East New York, it’s easy to hear both sides of the argument. The block beneath the subway overpass at the nearby Pennsylvania Avenue stop, almost at the end of the 3 line, features a set of businesses typical of the neighborhood: a few bodegas, a Chinese restaurant, a beauty supply store, a check cashing place. Metal shutters seal off several storefronts.
One discount store stocked with everything from toys to lingerie to extension cords — an example of the often invoked “Mom and Pop” stores that Walmart opponents say they are trying to protect — was doing a brisk business on a recent afternoon.
“Walmart,” said a clerk who declined to give her name, “would mess up my business, that’s for sure. We don’t need it here.”
On the next block, stores give way to vacant lots encircled by metal fences. Behind them stretch rows of small two-story houses. Down a side street, a small green awning advertises an employment agency that has been defunct for nearly a decade.
Help USA, a counseling center, now occupies the building.
Eugenia James, who has been a social worker there for the last eight years, said that “the Mom and Pop stores are plucking our eyes out, the prices are so high.” She said that Walmart is a desperately needed alternative in neighborhood’s moribund economy.
“It’s going to bring revenue, it’s going to bring employment, it’s going to bring variety,” she said. “It will be like walking into a museum — your eyes will open. We need Walmart. We need it.”