By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
The news reverberated this month with the shock of a loud and sudden thunderclap in the midst of L.A.’s bone-dry winter. It was revealed that Macy’s — which had just closed a historic store that served the black community — also had pledged nearly $1 million to community groups most likely to be critical of the store’s shutdown.
Predictably, Macy’s characterized the timing of the two events as a coincidence. Some community members interpreted the donations as a belated — albeit insulting — act of corporate conscience. Macy’s was not wont to aid local causes to this degree in the past, and many incensed Crenshaw residents perceived the donations as a tacky attempt to head off the inevitable hard feelings over the subsequent January 9 store closing; at worst, the contributions were cash incentives for veteran activist groups to stay out of the fray when the bomb dropped and their constituents started complaining.
Whatever the case, the black community in the Crenshaw district got more mileage from this money than Macy’s could have anticipated — or perhaps even desired. Black people are, at least, more collectively steamed about the Macy’s escapade than they were about, say, the demise of affirmative action at public universities.
"Macy’s really miscalculated," said John Mack of the Urban League, an organization slated to receive $150,000 over three years from Macy’s. Mack, better known for his diplomacy than militancy, insisted that the closing of the Macy’s in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was reprehensible, and vowed not to take the cash, at least until he gets some satisfactory answers. "It won’t keep me quiet," he said of the money, adding that "the Urban League and I strongly condemn the manner in which the store closure was handled — not even the employees got advance notice." He noted too that more than jobs and merchandise have been lost. "When you look at the history and the struggle so many of us have had trying to be supportive of the Crenshaw mall, trying to make it viable . . . it was very insensitive on [Macy’s] part not to forewarn the community."
Even more outraged was Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, which has been offered $100,000. Bakewell declared that his organization would accept nothing until and unless Macy’s does the right thing by the Crenshaw community — relinquishing its long-term lease of the store to the mall so it can secure another tenant, or otherwise helping to expedite the tenant-replacement process. Bakewell, as well-known for his lucrative development deals as for community agitating, vowed "to fight to the end."
Bakewell doubtlessly relishes the prospect of a grassroots fight that calls for an uncompromising position and incendiary speeches. Since making headlines in the early ’90s for shutting down post-riot construction sites that he felt didn’t hire enough blacks, he’s been a rabble-rouser without a cause. Tossing out a challenge to fellow agitators, Bakewell added, "None of us should be taking this money and then trying to explain it away. You can’t buy the Brotherhood Crusade. I’m not saying I know exactly what Macy’s motives were, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people don’t just give out unsolicited amounts of money for no reason."
Points well taken, although it’s not clear that Bakewell, Mack or any other grant recipient would have spoken out were it not for Brenda Shockley, the president of Community Build. It was Shockley who, at a public meeting shortly after the store closed, announced that her group and the others had received donation pledges in December, just prior to the shutdown. Until then, no organization heads thought to mention either the donations or their curious timing.
Like the others, Shockley’s group has not yet decided to accept the money.
While inner-city investment may be on the press releases, that was not likely the real agenda at the Federated Group, Macy’s parent, which for years presided over a sort of capitalist endgame at the Crenshaw mall. Local shoppers long noted the concerted neglect of the Baldwin Hills location — its status as stepchild in the Macy’s chain. Beyond the fact that the merchandise was sorely lacking, stores in posher locales had a policy of not accepting Crenshaw-bought merchandise for return or exchange; newspaper ads listing stores where featured merchandise could be found explicitly omitted the Baldwin Hills location. Residents perhaps could have resigned themselves to a bargain-outlet version of Macy’s, but the store didn’t succeed at that level either. The black response to the problem was typically just to leave the neighborhood and shop at the better sites, so the decline of the Crenshaw Macy’s long ago became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Though the Crenshaw area is regarded as the best hope for economic revival in Central L.A., Macy’s managed its store like a target of planned obsolescence. Critics say that view closely coincides with how other retailers and developers see the African-American market in general: They don’t.
Macy’s tried to give itself some cover against community outrage. When manage-ment closed the Crenshaw Macy’s, it also shuttered one in Westwood, a prosperous part of town that will hardly suffer from the loss as Crenshaw will. And the donations, though concentrated in South-Central, did not go exclusively to that area: Madres del Este de Los Angeles and the Puente Learning Center, both based in East L.A., and the Bay Area Urban League in Northern California round out the list.
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