Queens hates Wal-Mart? Not the man on the street
By Andy Serwer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – BEING SITUATED IN Bentonville, Ark., has served Wal-Mart well over the years. It was easy to underestimate a company based in a burg no one had ever heard of--certainly few competitors or critics ever made their way there. For most of its history Wal-Mart's stores, too, were plunked down in backwater towns, or at least in locales where major media rarely tread. Now all that's changed, of course. Bentonville is probably the most famous hamlet in America, and the giant retailer is pushing farther and farther into big-city hot zones, where unfriendly unions and other rabble-rousers are making life increasingly difficult.

A case in point: Wal-Mart and the real estate developer Vornado recently abandoned plans to build the first Wal-Mart store in New York City. Citing labor issues, local activists successfully convinced the developer that Wal-Mart would not be welcome as a corporate neighbor. Interesting stuff. Then I realized there was a new wrinkle. For the first time ever, I could cover a Wal-Mart story simply by hopping on the subway! (Just take the F line to Rego Park.)

And so on a recent snowy day I trekked out to Queens to see whether I could find any groundswell of anti-Wal-Mart sentiment. The section of Rego Park where the Wal-Mart was to be located is a shopping district alongside the Long Island Expressway. Hardly dangerous but a bit gritty and gray. The population there is incredibly diverse: Among those I ran into were Eastern Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, Italian Americans, African Americans, Hasidic Jews, and Indians. I began walking around the giant parking lot (881-car capacity) that would have been razed to build the store, randomly asking pedestrians what they thought about Wal-Mart's not coming to their 'hood. Here is a representative sampling of the reportorial give-and-take.

Q: "Excuse me, what do you think about Wal-Mart's dropping plans to build a store here?"

A1: "What?"

A2: "No English, please."

A3: "Whatever."

A4: "I don't know."

A5: "Yeah, they're not going to."

A6: "It would have been okay if they built it."

A7: "Wal-Mart? I think it's over that way."

None of these folks would give me their names, by the way. The only person I could identify was Dame Dia, the manager of a local Applebee's. (He was wearing a nametag.) "What's wrong with Wal-Mart?" asked Dia. "They have jobs there. And anyway, to save some money for your kids is good, right?"

Admittedly, I didn't come close to interviewing every single soul in Rego Park, but I couldn't find much fear (or loathing) of Wal-Mart. I did meet one woman who was against Wal-Mart's coming. She worked in the recreation center right across the street. "Oh, yeah," she said. "I'm glad they aren't building." Why is that? I asked. "The traffic," she said. "It's terrible here. Can you imagine what that would do?"

It's true that Queens Boulevard, which runs adjacent to the site, is a crowded thoroughfare choked full of cars on shopping trips to local merchants that line the street. And it's probably also true that some of those stores, like Kiki's Bazaar, Eric Shoes, and Lot-Less would have been hurt by Wal-Mart. But the local guys were already swimming near Radio Shack, GNC, Hollywood Video, Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, Sears, and J.C. Penney. A few miles away I noticed a Home Depot, and farther afield, a BJ's Wholesale Club. Which got me wondering: If Queens can accept J.C. Penney, Home Depot, and BJ's (none of which are unionized), why wouldn't it allow Wal-Mart? Are the existing big stores behind some of the anti-Wal-Mart lobbying? Or are Wal-Mart's policies that much worse than the other big-box stores'? Or did the other stores simply get there before the activists were organized? I'm not sure what the answers are, and I wonder whether the folks in Bentonville have a clue either.