Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Retail behemoth Wal-Mart, which has conquered upwardly mobile suburbia from coast to coast on its way to becoming a multibillion-dollar corporation, has its sights set on a new target — the Crenshaw district, a longtime stronghold of the black middle class that has been historically ignored by major retailers. Discussions are under way to bring the discount superstore to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which some locals are celebrating as a potential lease on life for the struggling mall. Other residents, who have long clamored for an upscale department store, are unimpressed and even fearful about the long-term impact of Wal-Mart on the neighborhood’s economy.

Officials at Center Trust, the Manhattan Beach–based company that owns the mall, caution that no lease has been signed and that Wal-Mart’s interest is still officially speculative. But Center Trust senior vice president Joe Paggi does acknowledge that talks are ongoing, though an agreement, as it comes to pass, would not likely be reached for several months. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin says that the company has been scrutinizing the urban market for some time now. Last year, the chain opened a store in Panorama City, Wal-Mart’s first venture into both the L.A. city limits and an urban demographic.

Center Trust has been frantically looking for a major retail anchor since Macy’s closed abruptly last January, igniting community anger over the retailer’s chronic mismanagement of the poorly performing store. Residents and activists immediately called for a replacement store that would be the caliber of a Macy’s or higher. But the only serious contender thus far is Wal-Mart, a prospect regarded as a mixed blessing at best.

“There’s nothing good about them coming,” says columnist and Crenshaw resident Earl Ofari Hutchinson. First of all, “Wal-Mart kills off small businesses with its deep discounting.” He also worries that the mall is not configured for a store like Wal-Mart, with its high customer volume. He pointed out that Wal-Mart typically builds freestanding stores surrounded by extensive parking, and he worries that the neighborhood would suffer from the increased traffic. He’s also wary of the store’s heavy stocking of guns and ammunition.

But others say there’s a good argument to be made for adding a Wal-Mart to a mall with only two remaining anchors, Sears and Robinsons-May, particularly because the latter store is rumored to be on its way out. “The bottom line is that we need good service, name recognition, quality products, and a tenant that will pay the rent and that has staying power,” says Joyce Perkins, longtime leader of a Crenshaw advisory group to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. “That’s important to the economic health of the whole area.”

Crenshaw residents have complained for years that despite the area’s relative prosperity, major retailers have snubbed it because Crenshaw’s middle class is black. And poor political leadership has failed to persuade major retailers to locate in either the underutilized mall or its environs.

But there is even more at stake: The struggle over economic development is shaping up as a battle for Crenshaw’s soul. Hutchinson insists that Wal-Mart would attract the “wrong kind of crowd and property values would go down.”

Some say that the death of Crenshaw’s image as an affluent enclave of black consumers would be hastened by the advent of a Wal-Mart, which would cast it as something decidedly more downscale: an area with a burgeoning Latino population east of Crenshaw Boulevard, with the young families that are Wal-Mart’s clientele. Hutchinson is also concerned about the future of the neighboring Santa Barbara Plaza, a huge open-air mall slated for redevelopment by athlete-turned-businessman Magic Johnson; Johnson has pledged that he will focus all his efforts on attracting upscale tenants. “But,” says Hutchinson, “what major retailer would come in and locate with a Wal-Mart nearby?”

Paggi, of Center Trust, says he initially hoped to recruit Dillard’s department store, an East Coast independent chain that is similar to Robinsons-May, but it was not yet ready to move into Southern California.

“Getting a store like Nordstrom at this point is a complete fantasy,” he says. “It has nothing to do with demographics and everything to do with how the whole retail picture has changed in the last 10 years or so. Everyone is price-conscious, even in places like Pasadena and Beverly Hills.”

Yet the dream of resuscitating the splendor of the Crenshaw shopping district in its heyday, when it boasted stores such as Silverwood’s and Desmond’s, will die hard.

The news from the front has not been good lately: Chaleé Blues, a black-owned creole restaurant and popular watering hole in the mall that offered live jazz and blues, closed a couple of months ago as abruptly as Macy’s had. Marvin Jackson, president of Crenshaw Neighbors Inc., says the closure was a blow, and that moving swiftly to reverse the trend is key. “I know a lot of people are looking for a more upscale store, but Wal-Mart will do a lot of business,” he says. “Saks Fifth Avenue isn’t realistic at this point. The mall needs a tenant.”

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