Walmart is preparing to open what it calls a “neighborhood market” on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. The development has inspired the usual protests over Walmart’s anti-union policy, but there’s a different kind of debate happening on the streets of Chinatown.
At the Alpine Recreation Center in Chinatown, men play chess, kids fill the playground, and Jian Quan Huang kicks a soccer ball with his buddy.
"My family and my friends, they like Walmart coming here," Huang says. "Why? Because everything is cheaper, right? That’s why."
Huang, a technician, has lived in Chinatown for six years. HIs parents lived there for two decades. When asked where he and his wife buy groceries, he said the Walmart in Rosemead about 15 miles away.
"So if Wal-Mart is coming here, everything is better, right?" Huang said with a chuckle.
Huang’s soccer pal agreed. They’re not snubbing the markets in Chinatown — they shop there for specifically Asian products: meats, fish, vegetables, and spices. But when it’s time to stock up on staples, they leave the neighborhood.
"Those two gentlemen were fortunate enough to be mobile, you know, to have transportation, so they can drive anywhere they want," says George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District. He says a lot of people in Chinatown depend on mass transit, which can be time consuming.
"The Walmart neighborhood market will allow us to shop in Chinatown to purchase whether it’s pet food, toiletries, I mean, as simple as toilet paper, with more than one item as a choice," he explained.
It’s a choice Yu says the people of Chinatown have been wanting for decades. Walmart’s space — part of a senior apartment complex at Grand and Cesar Chavez avenues — was built for a market 21 years ago, but has always been vacant. Other grocery chains passed on moving in. The nearest full-service market is a Ralphs near Staples Center — about a mile and a half away.
Wal-Mart isn’t building its usual big box store. Instead, it’s a smaller — by Walmart standards — 33,000-square-foot market that will sell fresh meats, produce, and dairy, and also include a bakery and pharmacy. It will open in a part of L.A. that has changed as the population has grown and shifted in the past decade.
“What I am actually seeing in the last ten years is a lot more younger people moving back into Chinatown, both as residents and as property owners,” Yu says.
The Walmart space is also a short walk from the Orsini apartments, more than a thousand luxury one and two-bedroom units on three corners of the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Figueroa Street. Orsini resident Christopher Stemen says Walmart will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
"Living in downtown, you don’t have a lot of options," he explains while walking his Yorkshire Terrier, Dora.
He and his wife shop at the Ralphs downtown, the Vons on Sunset Boulevard in Los Feliz. "So we have to drive a little ways to get all of our stuff," the software engineer says." If we need more than groceries, we have to go to Target on La Brea on Target or even Glendale."
Less than a block away from the Walmart site, the Sorento Liquor store has sold soda, snacks, booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets for more than 20 years. Business there picks up during baseball season, when fans stop through on their way to Dodger Stadium. Satit Thuvamontolrat and his wife own and operate the store and have put two kids through USC.
"We brought them up from this store and then get them an education," he says from behind the counter. But he's concerned about not keeping up with Walmart.
"We can’t compete (with) the price of merchandise with them," he says. "People are gonna be complaining about it."
Even though Walmart won’t open with a license to sell liquor, he worries about the chain’s reputation for selling just about everything else for cheap.
"We hope we can survive," he says as customers continue to trickle in.
At the other end of Chinatown, on Hill Street, the Ai Hoa Supermarket has survived for almost 30 years.
Manager Linda Hang puts it bluntly: "If Walmart comes in, I don’t think there would be a Chinatown. It wouldn’t exist anymore."
Hang also worries about Walmart luring customer away, but her outlook is particularly bleak for Chinatown’s even smaller businesses — the tea sellers, pharmacies, specialty shops, herbalists and bakeries — and for its identity.
"If all those little shops close, all the residents are gonna move to the San Gabriel valley, the 626 area. So it will be abandoned, pretty much," she says, confessing that she already lives in the San Gabriel valley, herself.
Longtime Chinatown activist Sharon Lowe also speaks bluntly about Walmart but reaches a different conclusion.
"Wal-Mart’s not my favorite," she says. "If you ask me personally, I will probably never enter a Walmart.
Over the years, Lowe has fought what she sees as insensitive development in Chinatown. She believes in Walmart's employees' rights to join a union.
"However, from a community perspective, as a community advocate, I look at the fact that we’ve been waiting a long time for a supermarket," she says. Lowe believes the local markets will not only compete well with the new Walmart but also improve their own offerings.
Customers will likely also come from the adjacent communities of Echo Park and Boyle Heights. Walmart hopes to open the store early next year. It will open its first Neighborhood Market in California on Friday in Huntington Beach. Three more Orange County neighborhood markets — Rancho Santa Margarita, Garden Grove and Anaheim are scheduled later this year, with markets in Panorama City and Altadena also in the pipeline.