Why Not Walmart? A Case For the Chain

September 19, 2013

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality...

Walmart would like to move in down the street from a little market in downtown Toronto called Kensington. There is, as you might expect, a fuss—a fuss I’m quite pleased by, because it lays bare a few things that are of much greater than local concern. It’s about a pernicious preference for the idea of the working class over the actual members of that class, a refusal to see one’s middle-class fetishes as middle-class fetishes, and a predilection for protecting the interests of the unborn—conveniently in very little conflict with our own current ones—over those of their grandparents trying to make ends meet today.

It’s about 100 years old, this market. It’s a delightful little hive of Victorian working-class row houses that have been largely turned into shops that sell produce, prepared food, clothing, fish, meat, and coffee.

The people who love Kensington Market, and who love the city, do not want Walmart moving in. They fear it will destroy the neighbourhood. A Facebook group called Friends of Kensington Market say on their page devoted to keeping Walmart out, “We love Kensington Market and want to preserve its unique character and place in the fabric of the city.” City councillor Adam Vaughan has also expressed his intent to fight. They’re entitled to it, of course, but they should be more honest about the nature of their opposition. Historically, the market’s unique character has come not from its charming awnings or delightful little cheeses from Macedonia, but from the availability of good, cheap daily necessities, plentiful and close by.

This is a class battle, and those opposed to Walmart are fighting for middle-class preferences against the interests of the working class—the people whom the market has primarily existed to serve since its foundation.

Ever since I became acquainted with it in the 1980s, Kensington Market has had a dual identity. For those who live nearby, it’s a place to get good food cheap. For those from farther afield, it’s a pretty place to spend a day wandering, munching, and generally lolling. Much like nearby Chinatown, and everything from the souk in Marrakesh to the Great Market Hall in Budapest to the food street off Beijing’s Wangfujing, the division is between utility and leisure, need and curiosity. It’s a fine division, one tending to fund the other.

But it’s easy to confuse the two. People have been worried about the gentrification of Kensington since the 1970s, when the city threatened to tear it down, and the 1990s, when George Brown College sold its building in the heart of the market to a condo developer. It didn’t happen then, but over the last few years, the gentry stole in undercover of hipster credibility and metastasized without anyone raising so much as a graffito. The reason is that the Kensington gentry, c’est nous. We kept Starbucks out, but welcomed Hooked, the fancy new fish shop that promises ecologically sound and unsmelly fish at much higher than traditional market prices. There’s no chain grocery store, but there is Thomas Lavers Cannery and Deli where, as I’ve pointed out here before, they sell pickles for five times what they charge at Whole Foods, and generally spend their days putting very cheap things into lovely little jars and charging said gentry money they’re only too happy to pay for the knowledge that their tiny swabs of ketchup passed through someone’s artisanal hands.

This isn’t just a Kensington Market problem: It’s a first-world problem. It’s our stubborn refusal to look class in the face, to admit that it exists, to realize that only one-third of the Canadian population gets any form of post-secondary education, and that it’s the same third whose families earn the most money. That overlap is not coincidental. If we did consider such things, we would realize that the implicit sympathy for the working class evinced by local activists such as those activating against Walmarts in economically strong city cores like Toronto’s—they behave differently in downtown Peoria—is disingenuous and self-interested. Well, either that or stupid, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Walmart is a mirror image of Kensington Market. If we flip our priorities away from questions of ownership (small-business owners are not inherently working class) to price tags—those things that loom the largest among people whose debt and paycheques force them to make choices among needful things every time they shop—Walmart is better for the residents of the government-subsidized community of Alexandra Park next door than Kensington is these days.

Sure, little stalls like Oxford Fruit still offer lettuce and potatoes at pretty good prices, but there are no new Oxford Fruits opening in Kensington. Sure, there are no chains, but in the face of the new Jimmy’s Coffee and the new Café Pamenar, where I’m sitting now—where the cheapest drink on the menu is 25 per cent more than the standard coffee at Second Cup—I wonder if a lower-end chain coffee shop, where not every single patron has a $2,500 laptop and a life that involves leisured mid-days in front of them, mightn’t be more welcoming.

“Walmart is known to suck the money out of the local economy and into the coffers of a wealthy US-based corporation,” says well-known Kensington activist Yvonne Bambrick on her site. “They kill good local jobs and replace them with far fewer and less desirable ones.”

The market she is defending is quickly ceasing to exist, falling victim to small-business owners and consumers against whom she has not had one word to say. And the small businesses that open in Kensington, even the ones catering to the new, young, bearded gentry, tend to pay the same minimum wage, with fewer opportunities for advancement and raises. Walmart-hating is easy; class consciousness is not.

“Have you not read Gordon Laird’s The Price of a Bargain?!” someone might say in outrage. “Do you not understand what an enemy to the working class Walmart and other global discounters are?”

I have read the book, and others like it, and I am a great proponent of local money being spent by local people on locally grown and produced things, even when those things end up being more expensive as a result. But I also do not have children, do not live even partially off government benefits, and was raised and have lived much of my life with a perspective that has a lot more in common with Canada’s version of upper-class than working-class. I have little sympathy for the middle, but neither are my behaviour and preferences in line with those for whom Walmart does the best job: Working parents who need to buy school supplies for three children and don’t have the time or energy to shop around.

The fights that Laird and others like him wage are noble ones, but they’re long games, and they are essentially bourgeois. In a macro sense, you could argue that Walmart does bad things for Chinese workers and various aspects of planetary systems. (You could also argue they provide jobs in numbers that might not exist in China otherwise.) But banks are also agents of global evil, and so are the mining and fishery industries. As far as I can tell, though, these are all issues requiring generational fixes, and I cannot help myself: I have more sympathy for those struggling to buy the things they need now than I do for their theoretical grandchildren.

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Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality).