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Capital Markets

Walmart, D.C. community organizer.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Just as he was due to take power over New Year’s weekend, Vincent Gray, the new mayor of Washington, D.C., declared surrender in what voters had anticipated would be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Last November Walmart announced plans to open its first stores in the District. The low-cost retailer operates in all 50 states, but the nation’s capital has until now been a bad fit. Walmart has a reputation, in many cases well-earned, of pricing local shops out of business, and Washington has a lot of cherished local shops, particularly in the leafy neighborhoods where its elites live.

Capital Markets

Gray doesn’t poll well in those neighborhoods. His campaign was built around asserting​—​with a strong racial subtext​—​that his predecessor, Adrian Fenty, had spent too much time courting their favor. Gray won thanks to heavy support from organized labor. Walmart doesn’t tolerate unions in any of its American stores. So the local head of the UFCW grocery workers’ union, Thomas McNutt, greeted Walmart’s promise of 1,200 new jobs by warning that the company was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Between the muscle of pro-Gray unions and the influence of anti-Gray yuppie aesthetes, Washington, D.C., seemed to have a ready-made, broad-based anti-Walmart coalition that could impose its will.

It didn’t. Days before his swearing-in, Gray told listeners to WTOP that he would insist Walmart pay “competitive wages .  .  . $12 and up with benefits is fair.” Gray did not mention unions. Neither did the city councilman Harry Thomas, another organized-labor stalwart, who asked last fall only for “full-time jobs and labor-based pay rates.” That means Walmart’s four D.C. stores will probably see the light of day.

In the Washington drama, something has broken down in the familiar little-guy-versus-big-corporation narrative about Walmart. The main theme of decades’ worth of press stories—that Walmart destroys communities—is making less and less sense. It is not that Walmart is blameless. No one who has been to a small, tight-knit city like, for instance, Hillsboro, Texas, will be able to shake the sense that the Walmart three miles away on Interstate 35 has something to do with the dozens of vacant shops around the courthouse square.

But there is a problem for those who would defend small shops and tight-knit neighborhoods against the transition to a more corporate kind of retail. It is that the transition is over. The communities that activists profess to defend against the encroachment of Walmart are today weakened or nonexistent. They are Potemkin communities, and this is true of both the elite wing of Walmart opponents and the demotic wing.

In one of the boutiques near the D.C-Maryland line, I spoke to a small shop owner who heads a local trade association. He is not a big fan of Walmart, but he worries as a citizen rather than a competitor: He dislikes the public-works concessions (new roads, building of utility lines, etc.) that he says Walmart is able to wring out of local governments. Moreover, the stories of Walmart wiping out mom-and-pop shops are true​—​but they are, he says, about ten years out of date. Any small business that is old enough to count as a “cherished community institution” has, over the past ten years, been subjected to unprecedented price competition that owes more to the Internet than it does to Walmart. Most small shops still standing in this environment are still standing because of some identifiable advantage in service or charm. They will be fine.

In the poorer parts of town, the case against Walmart was never strong to begin with. There, Walmart’s foes tend not to be genuine grassroots movements, but rather government-connected activists and agitators who require buying off. The price is usually referred to as “investing in the community.” Councilman Thomas had a meeting with Walmart executives to that end. The only awkward moment at the public meeting Thomas scheduled came when a member of the public demanded that Walmart put its promises in writing. Another city council member, Yvette Alexander, told the Washington Post that a Walmart “could be a great thing, but what have they done in the community?”

The answer, as it turns out, is plenty. When Walmart opened a store in nearby Landover Hills, Maryland, in 2007, it agreed to limit its sales of groceries and (a bizarre demand) pay for advertising for local businesses. One of the first press releases the firm issued after announcing its D.C. plans stressed that:

Last year alone, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation contributed more than $2.2 million in cash and in-kind gifts to D.C.-based non-profit organizations including the D.C. Central Kitchen, Rachael’s Women’s Center, Latino Economic Development Corporation, Capital Area Food Bank, Center for Inspired Teaching and many others.

It subsequently announced plans to develop other “charitable partnerships.”

Walmart bills its D.C. launch as a chance for “job opportunities and affordable groceries.” This last may sound like an empty boast to a suburbanite, but it is not for an urban community organizer. The poor neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city are well supplied with liquor stores that sell lotto tickets, but they are desperately short of places that sell food. In the parlance of D.C. activists, these are “food deserts.” People who live in such neighborhoods do not worry about the competition faced by their local shops because they don’t really have local shops.

One crucial thing Walmart did when it announced its push into Washington was to release a poll. Taken by Lester & Associates (Mayor Gray’s pollster), it showed that 73 percent of Washingtonians want a Walmart. Then it broke the numbers down by ward, showing that 95 percent of the residents of Ward 8​—​the poor area that former mayor Marion Barry represents​—​favored getting the stores. Walmart, which always enters new markets formidably armed with economic and public opinion data, has set up a Washington website to explain to local shoppers “how they can be an advocate for the company.” Far from thwarting the agenda of progressive interest groups, Walmart increasingly sells itself as embodying that agenda.

Walmart’s problem used to be this: It had a winning argument to make to consumers, but people are not solely consumers. They are also small-business owners and citizens who treasure their familiar institutions. And when people considered themselves something other than consumers, the Walmart argument did not always win. Now it always wins. That is a sign that Americans are just a bunch of consumers, or at least that the area of the American brain occupied by matters other than shopping continues to shrink.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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