Goodbye to Free Trade and the Broadway K-Mart

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 3-21-02

The US has always practiced a double standard.  Do as we say, not as we do.  Hence, we condemn terrorists we don’t like while supporting ones we do.  We condemn regimes on our regime’s shitlist, often using an infantile lexicon, tarring them as “evil” or “bad guys,” yet at the same time we support brutal human rights oppressors such as Columbia and Egypt.  So it should come as no surprise that the double standard is now applying to free trade – with the US government placing tariff’s on imported steel at the same time it demands other nations open their markets to US branded products.

Tax Evil Steel

Now don’t get me wrong.  Steel tariffs are a good thing.  They protect our dying steel industry, where workers earn a living wage and enjoy some modicum of workplace safety, from a flood of cheap imported steel produced in Dantesque infernos toxic to workers and the surrounding environment.  Yes, imported steel is “cheap” because the cost is borne by underpaid workers and a ravaged environment.  With the demise of our steel mills, we enjoy clean air, yet we still have all the steel we want – only it’s cheaper.  From the perspective of a greedy amoral pig, it’s a great deal.  But, to use a newspeak term, it’s evil.  

Am I saying that the unelected Bush administration clowns squatting in our White House did the right thing?  Certainly not.  The steel tariffs are too small to be truly effective.  They are just crumbs thrown out to appease the last vestiges of a powerful industry and its workers.  But they do form a big crack in the World Trade Organization’s global hegemony.  Bush had to make this concession, or risk awakening a sleeping giant on the American political landscape.  Yet, by doing so, he is exposing the global trade agreements for what they are – imperialism reborn.  The rest of the world has to give, give and give.  We, on the other hand get to take, take and take.  If it wasn’t obvious before, it sure as hell is now. 

And for the Bushistas, it means the beginning of the end.  A glitch in their post-9/11 plans for corporate global domination.  For Bush, the decision was hellish.  Risk pissing off international trading partners and putting the whole free-trade mantra in jeopardy, or risk causing the deathblow to one of the country’s more visible industries and suffering the domestic political fallout.  If Bush opted for angering his international corporate partners instead of the American people, it shows there still is hope for grassroots democracy.  Perhaps we as a nation are finally awakening from our post-9/11 nightmare and smelling the fetid stench of dung in the air.

Steal Evil Taxes

Republicans and Republicrats on the local scene need to wake up and take notice of the emerging political reality.  On a national level, we’re not going to let corporate globalization impoverish the world’s labor force and degrade the global environment.  On a local Western New York level, we’re tired after years of watching our elected leaders give the house away to developers and corporate interests while eliminating public services in our communities. 

Take K-Mart for example.  A decade ago, the City of Buffalo shamelessly lured the retail giant to its Broadway location by giving it what amounted to roughly a million dollars in corporate welfare and tax abatements.  The city used approximately $500,000 in block grant money to “prepare” the site.  This meant, among other things, demolishing an old abandoned department store, and removing almost an entire block of Beck Street, houses and all. 

K-Mart, after extorting their loot from the city, opened their Broadway store.  The initial reaction was mixed.  Small locally owned stores such as Modern Home and Auto, which were part of the community for decades, closed down, unable to compete with the new big box.  On the other hand, however, a new corporate ghetto formed around K-Mart, with other boxes popping up in the emerging branded landscape.

Corporate Parasites

Yes, the K-Mart investment brought life to the Broadway Fillmore community.  But this new life form, the corporate retail box, turned out to be parasitic.  They brought cheap prices to a community starving for retail merchants, but they used this lure to vacuum money from East Side neighborhoods.  Gone were community based small entrepreneurs who lived in the city, or at least in the region, and reinvested in our communities through their own property taxes and consumption.  In their place, we got a few stifling low wage dead end K-Jobs.  Overall, we lost jobs.  Studies show that stores like K-Mart and Wal Mart, by driving small businesses out of business, cost communities three jobs for every two they created.  The impact of the other corporate boxes that opened near the K-Mart were as bad if not worse, with, at one point, five rent-to-own shops peddling their wares at 500% of regular retail prices.           ......Buffalo City Council Member David Franczyk........

The reality is that the Broadway K-Mart did not attract shoppers from outside of the area.  To the contrary, it created a massive artery draining desperately needed dollars from an impoverished community and sending them out of the region.  On a macro level, with most K-Mart goods coming from low wage third world countries, this city subsidized store also hastened the loss of the very blue collar manufacturing jobs that built the Broadway-Fillmore community.  Diverting block grant money destined for anti-poverty programs to K-Mart’s corporate coffers under these conditions was nothing less than criminal.

Now K-Mart has gone Chapter 11.  This is certainly not the fault of the Broadway Fillmore community whose residents dutifully emptied their pockets into K-Mart’s cash registers.  By most accounts, the Broadway K-Mart was a moneymaker.  K-Mart went down nationally because they couldn’t be as sleazy as Wal Mart or as hip as Target. Neither of those stores, however, have a presence on the East Side of Buffalo.

Bye Bye K-Mart

Chapter 11 means K-Mart can break their lease.  Their motives, however, for closing this particular store are dubious.  They need to close and liquidate stock in a number of stores to raise capitol as part of their reorganization.  This store represents a location where in the past they were able to extort money from a city desperate to look like the suburbs.  If past practices are any indicator, K-Mart’s execs could expect a closure threat to yield a six-digit payoff.

And it did.  Before the announcement was official, city leaders were scurrying to redirect more sorely needed city and county funds to the dying retail giant.  The “incentive” package praised by The Buffalo News’ editorial writers, proposes giving K-Mart another $200,000 of our tax money so that they can keep their profitable store open and sucking money from our community.  This largesse, ironically, follows a 100% reduction in city funding to community based arts and cultural organizations.

A better idea would be to call K-Mart’s bluff and let them close the store.  The space could then be developed as a small retail business incubator based on a Flea Market model.  This could be an interesting addendum to the now profitable Broadway Market.  With the market focusing on food and the former K-Mart focusing on dry goods, the new synthesis could serve the community while drawing shoppers from outside of the area, much as the market does at holiday time and the Walden Flea Market does every weekend.  The new entrepreneurs could focus on providing services similar to what the profitable K-Mart provided. With luck, businesses could spin off from the incubator and inhabit the empty storefronts that now dot the area.  Maybe it’s not the best idea, but it sure sounds better than giving another $200,000 to a bankrupt corporation that’s already shown it has no qualms about abandoning our community.


Dr. Michael I. Niman’s articles are archived at