Inviting a Wal-Mart into Florence-Firestone

Eddie Caire, a civic activist and former labor organizer from the Florence-Firestone neighborhood just north of Watts, collects a signature from Beda Padilla in favor of bringing a Wal-Mart to the area.
Eddie Caire, a civic activist and former labor organizer from the Florence-Firestone neighborhood just north of Watts, collects a signature from Beda Padilla in favor of bringing a Wal-Mart to the area.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The little tortilleriatortilleria, hidden away in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood near Watts, could be mistaken for a thousand others in the city’s immigrant core. It’s on a mostly residential stretch of Nadeau Street, a few blocks removed from commercial corridors where the buildings that look newer than others nearby are the ones that were rebuilt after the 1992 riots.

Playa Azul is a family business, and pork is the house specialty. The front door is just past a brick wall covered with a large mural in which a cartoon pig looks happy as can be, which is odd because he’s sitting in a tub of cooking oil and will, presumably, be reduced to chicharrones by the end of day.

Inside, Maria Hernandez was in the corner of the muggy kitchen, hand-pressing corn tortillas, one at a time, on an old wooden press brought from Mexico. She has made 300 tortillas a morning this way for 10 years, except on Sundays. Across the room, the market’s owner, Jose Gomez, 58, grimaced and leaned into his long knife while slicing huge pork bellies into fatty strips.

The place was humming, as it has been for half a century. That’s when a man walked in the door with an unlikely plan -- so unlikely, in fact, that some around here have equated it to dealing with the devil.

Wal-Mart’s march toward apparent world domination, it could be argued, hit a wall here, in the urban heart of Los Angeles.

Six years ago, the City Council in Inglewood, a few miles to the west, rejected a proposed Wal-Mart that would have had a footprint the size of 17 football fields. When Wal-Mart tried to circumvent the council, Inglewood residents rejected, overwhelmingly, a ballot initiative sponsored by the company.

The vote helped usher in an era of skepticism when it came to the world’s largest company, with officials across the metropolis approving a series of rules and ordinances that protected local businesses against big-box retailers.

Wal-Mart didn’t exactly go belly-up; it reported $405.6 billion in revenue last year. And the company line is that its efforts in Southern California are going according to plan.

But this has been a testy market for Wal-Mart, particularly when it comes to the chain’s “supercenters” -- stores that combine traditional retail with a discount grocery and, on average, offer 142,000 different items for sale. The giant centers have fueled much of the company’s recent growth.

But although there are 48 supercenters in Kansas, which has a smaller population than Orange County, there are only 33 in California and none in the city of Los Angeles. Most in Southern California are in outlying areas.

That, Eddie Caire decided late last year, must change. A supercenter, he decided, would amount to Florence’s salvation.

Caire was born and raised in the area. At 7, he was shining shoes in windowless bars to make money. By 12, he was a member of Florencia 13, the neighborhood’s dominant gang, and he dropped out of school at age 15.

He got entangled with the law -- minor stuff, he said -- and on his 17th birthday, a judge ordered him to enlist in the military. He wound up serving 10 years in the Marines, including a brief stint in Vietnam as Saigon was being evacuated. Later, he became a union organizer, then started a small business that performs the final clean-up at construction sites.

He also became a civic activist of sorts, putting together rallies to demand better public safety and lobbying local officials to pave the alleys that course between Florence’s rows of small, aging houses.

Caire is 51 now. He’s spent most of his life right here, and for virtually all of that time, Florence has been in the grip of an economic depression.

There has been some progress. Last fall, officials broke ground on a $3-million Los Angeles County community service center, and there are plans for more modest improvements, such as a new pocket park off Gage Avenue. The neighborhood’s first new shopping center in four decades opened recently along Alameda Street.

But Florence remains a poor neighborhood, peppered with check-cashing stores, graffiti and scrubby lots filled with discarded couches.

As Caire drives around, he points out the mattress factory where his father worked and the cardboard plant where his mother worked, both shuttered long ago.

Caire settled on a campaign to land a Wal-Mart, he said, for several reasons. The first is that there are few grocery stores in the area; most residents must either take the bus to other neighborhoods to buy more affordable goods or pay through the nose at small convenience stores.

“The people who have the least are expected to pay the most,” he said.

But the overarching reason he decided to push for a Wal-Mart is that it would create jobs in a community that needs them desperately.

“I’m not so foolish as to think that we wouldn’t put some people out of business,” he said. “But this is a no-brainer.”

That, of course, is not a universally held opinion.

“The medicine that will help cure our economic malaise will be small- and medium-sized businesses indigenously grown in our communities,” said Dan Rosenfeld, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ senior deputy for economic development.

Rosenfeld said officials have no “preordained bias” against large retailers but noted that questions have been raised about their labor policies, among other things. Local businesses, he said, can offer enormous benefits: pride of ownership, local hiring, tax dollars routed back into the streets where they originate.

Steve Jung, 66, and his wife, Hannah, used to sell their wares at swap meets but moved here three years ago because they wanted to open a shop of their own. Revenues have dropped by half in the last two years.

“Wal-Mart has everything,” Jung said, glancing nervously around his shop, stuffed to the ceiling with wallets, hair brushes and bras, the same goods that a Wal-Mart would carry. “And cheap,” said his wife.

In Playa Azul, the market with the hand-pressed tortillas, the owner’s son, Jaime Gomez, 33, shook his head when he learned of the reason for Caire’s visit early this week. “It’s ignorance,” he said. “These corporate giants, I just disagree with how they do business.” He looked around the old-fashioned kitchen. “This,” he said, “is what could be lost.”

More surprising, however, is the traction that Caire’s quirky campaign is gaining.

Wal-Mart itself, predictably, is quite pleased. Last week, Caire sent the company a list of 11 potential sites, and a spokesman said the company is “always looking for new opportunities” and is eager to “be part of the solution” in a place like Florence.

Caire has earned the backing of some prominent voices in the community, including the Rev. Ramon Palomera Guzman, administrator of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic church and school, a keystone of the community.

“If it adds jobs, it’s a good idea,” Guzman said. “Everybody is really hurting.”

Caire and his followers, meanwhile, have gathered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition pressing their demand for a supercenter with the company and local politicians. That might not sound like much, but they are only now starting to campaign at churches and schools -- and there are only 60,000 people in the neighborhood to begin with.

On a recent day, Caire spoke with at least 40 people before he encountered any resistance; the only people who declined to sign his petition were undocumented immigrants afraid to write down their addresses. “Wal-Mart?” asked Sara Rodriguez, 36, and she grabbed his pen. “Claro que si,” she said. “Of course.”

Even most merchants signed on: the owner of a small grocery, the operator of a swap-meet-style clothing business.

“I was really surprised at that one,” Caire whispered after scoring the signature of the owner of a Compton Avenue tire shop. “I thought he was going to choke me!”

Caire stopped to count the pages of petitions he and his supporters had filled. They had added another 500 signatures -- a big day, for better or worse.