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Opinion: Wal-Mart in Dudley Square? It Couldn't Hurt

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino says he's against a Wal-Mart grocery store opening near Roxbury's Dudley Square. How could he be?

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has decreed that under no circumstances will he allow a Walmart grocery store to be built anywhere near Dudley Square.

Why not? Well, his reasons vary. For one, he says, Dudley Square already has a grocery store, so it doesn't need another one. Adding a new market would be unfair to the existing one. He's talking about Tropical Foods, a small grocery store that caters to its Roxbury and Dorchester neighbors.

Figuring he knew more about it than I did, I walked to Dudley Square a couple weeks ago to check out Tropical Foods for myself. I had never been inside before, although I've been a fan of the murals on its exterior and have often walked through the Square.

I could barely get inside the front door. I had to make my way across a full parking lot (at 4 p.m. in the afternoon), past a parking attendant, in order to get into the store.

There were easily 100 people inside. The shelves were chock full of popular American brands of cereal and dried goods (and Entemanns cookies!), but also a huge selection of what might be called "ethnic" food - aisles of Goya brand food, plus plenty of fresh fruit, roots, yams, and yotes, and an aisle made up entirely of corn meal and beans (sold in bulk). Reggae played on the speakers.

Would a Walmart market draw all these people away from Tropical Foods? I'm skeptical it would. There's no way a national grocery chain could stock all the types of food being sold here. It would only stock the most popular brands and labels - what's being sold in their other stores.

After I left the market, I decided to check out the rest of the Square. I stopped to take a photo of the one-story brick building across the street from Tropical Foods. As I did, a man in a car stalled in traffic rolled down his passenger window.

"You should buy that," he said, motioning to the abandoned building. "Best investment you could make, trust me!"

I continued on. Across Washington Street is Aga's Highland Tap, which brags it's been there "Since 1947." Google tells me it's a strip club. Sadly, it was closed, as was the Dudley Square Discount Store, nearby. A man was passed-out in front of the historic Eliot Cemetery. I began to be skeptical that anything good was goin' on down Dudley.

But, heading farther on, the street scene exploded with activity. People were coming in and out of fast food outlets, from the Walgreens, the Citizens Bank. Around the corner, near the exit to the Dudley bus station exit, a man greeted me by saying, "Need a taxi?" Half a block later, another man asked the same question. They weren't licensed cab drivers, they were picking up people coming out of the bus station.

Many stores were open. In fact, the only real "blight" in the neighborhood is the Ferdinand Building, which, for at least as long as the Mayor has been mayor, has been the promised site of "something great." It's supposed to become the new, $115 million headquarters of the Boston Public Schools and other city agencies.

Dudley Square is definitely a neighborhood "on the edge." For every busy bank and convenience store there's a take-out restaurant, a check cashing store, a rent-a-center. A guy on the corner was exchanging cash for a "handshake."

In my opinion, a new business like Walmart would help eradicate this type of behavior. Really, it's hard to see how a new grocery store would be anything but another block in the rebuilding of Dudley Square. But the Mayor says, "No," no Walmart grocery store will be built anywhere near here.

His opposition makes no sense. Another reason he says he doesn't want Walmart (in any form, market or superstore) is because of its poor labor record. His hand-picked head of city development, Peter Meade of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was quoted as saying, "I don’t think a misogynist job-sucking machine is a good idea for the city of Boston." That's a nasty thing to say. And, irrelevant.

Lest the mayor forget, there is such a thing in Massachusetts as a minimum wage law, one that is higher than the federal minimum. And, lest the mayor forget, there is also a universal healthcare law, that provides for health insurance coverage for all Massachusetts residents.

So there goes his arguments about low-paying jobs with no benefits.

A Walmart grocery store would employ, what, 50 to 100 people, possibly more? Who could be against that? The new building would replace what is now an empty lot (owned by the city) on a desolate patch of street with a cleaned-up, landscaped, bright and inviting parcel of property tax producing land. What US city mayor would give that up?

At the same time Mayor Menino has been railing against Walmart, he has raised nary a word of complaint about other grocery stores opening up in the city. He "whole-heartedly" supports Whole Foods opening a supermarket in Jamaica Plain. And, he hasn't said anything about the other supermarkets already located near Tropical Foods - not the Whole Foods in the Fenway, only about a mile away, nor the Stop & Shop in South Bay, also just over a mile away. Tropical Foods has been able to survive despite this competition (and is doing so well it's announced a major expansion).

I think a Walmart would be good for the Dudley Square neighborhood.

Do you?

gretchen van ness October 21, 2011 at 02:00 PM
From the NY Times today: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/business/wal-mart-cuts-some-health-care-benefits.html?hp
Kasey Hariman October 21, 2011 at 03:41 PM
You're right--Dudley isn't in the South End. However, a Wal-Mart coming to Boston would impact the entire city, so that's why you see it on different Patch sites. Dudley Patch (or Dorchester Patch) also does not exist, so reporting the story there is not an option.
Kasey Hariman October 21, 2011 at 03:51 PM
And Raphael--thanks for the heads up! There's no room for racism on Patch.
Marc near the Park October 21, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Hi Elaine, I was speaking soley of profits, not operating costs and I was commenting on just one of the points that always gets trumpeted in the fight against big business, "Profits are sucked out of the community" I guess there would have to be a study done at some point to track at what point the number of jobs and amount of wages that a big box store produces becomes a net benefit to the community rather than a drain, given the disparity of the amount that stays in the community at locally-owned vs. a national chain that you cited. "For every $100 spent at a locally-owned business, $68 stays in the local economy compared to only $43 if spent at a national chain" Sorry if the "dumping money into their homes" sounds weird, it's just a way of saying are they automatically going to reinvest their money in their local economy, by frequenting smaller, more expensive shops like their own? I imagine if times are tight that it would force their hand to shop at a cheaper big box store. What if they go on a vacation, buy a new stereo or security system at a big box store? Just throwing some thoughts out there... And yes, I know they aren't Scrooge McDuckin' in a vault filled with gold!
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