Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will they love Wal-Mart once it arrives?

I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself about all the screaming and screeching that took place earlier this week in the Lake View neighborhood concerning a proposal to build a Wal-Mart store as part of the shopping strip along Broadway near Diversey Parkway (in the less couth parts of the city, Diversey is an avenue).
Wal-Mart is everywhere, except in Lake View.

The reaction wasn’t the least bit surprising. In fact, it is exactly what I’d expect.

BECAUSE I RECALL a moment several years ago when I happened to be in that exact neighborhood. Specifically, I was at the Borders books store that until recently was at that very intersection.

I happened to be looking at a display that was set up near the cash registers when I overheard a man who walked into the store ask for directions to the nearest Wal-Mart store. From the sound of his accented drawl and his demeanor, I’m inclined to believe he was from out-of-town.

But it wasn’t his question about wanting to find a Wal-Mart in the area that separates the Lincoln Park and Lake View neighborhoods that was so memorable as much as the answer from the sales clerk.

The clerk told that man that such stores didn’t “fit in” to the neighborhoods that like to think they are the elite of Chicago (and probably think way too much of themselves). That clerk’s tone was rather snotty.

I’M SURE THIS particular tourist came away thinking that this particular neighborhood was a tad arrogant. Or maybe he let that allow him to perceive all of Chicago that way, I don’t know.

But as I read the reports coming out of Lake View about how people gathered Monday night at the Wellington Avenue Church, all I could help but think was that sales clerk from several years ago (who probably didn’t even live in the neighborhood – which is a bit pricey for a retail cashier to afford) gave an accurate perspective of the people who can afford the rents and mortgages of those two north lakefront Chicago neighborhoods.

What I find ironic (aside from the fact that that particular Borders bookstore is among the ones that recently closed down) is that this Wal-Mart is filling another vacancy. The location desired by Wal-Mart used to be a PetSmart store.

So I’m wondering if those “high-toned” individuals (many of whom I’d guess will wind up moving to some suburb once they have kids who become school-age) really prefer the idea of an empty storefront.

REALIZE THAT I write this piece even though I don’t think much of the Wal-Mart experience. I have never cared much for the quality of their merchandise, which means I view Wal-Mart stores as the perfect proof of that old cliché, “You Get What You Pay For.”

A cheaper price isn’t always everything.

But I can appreciate how one can’t be too picky when it comes to a community and empty storefronts.

I have seen too many neighborhoods in this city that used to have vibrant shopping districts where the big stores pulled out and the locals weren’t aggressive enough in trying to fill the gaps.

WHAT HAPPENED IS that many of those districts decayed from sitting empty and the perception became that they are dead. Now, these are districts that feel fortunate if they can get one of those “dollar store” chains (the 21st Century equivalent of the “dime store”) to come in and sell cheap merchandise.

I’ll be the first to admit that the district at Broadway and Diversey isn’t at that point yet. But if local people think that some high-end retailer is just anxiously awaiting a chance to locate within their proximity to cater to their whims, I’d say that somebody thinks a little too highly of themselves.

If anything, the current economic conditions have most companies cutting back, instead of thinking in terms of new locations.

And with this kind of attitude, I’m sure such a haughty attitude would cause those desired high-end retailers to think they can get a better deal locating elsewhere – where they won’t have to deal with such snobbery.

OF COURSE, SUCH attitudes aren’t limited to retail locations.

I heard a lot of similar rhetoric last week when the Dave Matthews Band announced details about the Chicago concert they plan to give as part of this year’s musical tour. They want to use off-beat sites for their concert venues, instead of the traditional arenas and stadiums.

In Chicago, they plan to erect a stage on the site of the old U.S. Steel plant at 79th Street and the lakefront. It will be an outdoor festival, and promoters would like us to think of the image of hundreds of thousands of people (it’s a 600-acre site) grooving to the music, rain or shine, with the Chicago skyline in the background of the stage.

Yet the critics, some of whom may be the same people who are now ranting about Wal-Mart, are claiming that a site between the South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods (in fact, anything south of Roosevelt Road) is too far away from their preferred playgrounds, and too icky.

THEY’RE EVEN COMPLAINING about how attending such a concert will mean exposing oneself to massive crime – even though the former steel mill site is fenced in and my guess is that the security is going to be intense enough that nobody without a ticket is going to get anywhere close to the event.

Now I’m not sure I buy into the developer hype about how this event will draw massive attention to the South Side neighborhoods and will help their revitalization. But a lot of the trash talk about the event, and the Wal-Mart, is coming from people who think too highly of themselves because of their home address.

Besides, I find one other detail of this situation to be ironic. As I wrote earlier, I think many of these Lake View/Lincoln Park residents will wind up moving suburban someday so they can find their mini-mansion dream house.

The way things are going now, that house is likely to have a Wal-Mart located just a mile or so up the road. As dreadful as those places can be, I’d say it serves these residents right to suffer such an ultimate fate.


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