Thursday, December 4, 2008

Green Acres

When I was growing up in Rochdale Village in the 1960s, the shopping destination of choice was Green Acres, a large shopping mall in Valley Stream, just over the Queens/Nassau County line. Green Acres has been in the news this past week as the site of that horrible tragedy in a Wal-Mart, where on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which for some reason is called “Black Friday” (though in this case not inappropriately), a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers hoping to make off with swag, a metaphor for something about our consumer culture.
It’s a horrible situation all around, and as usual in America today, we divide the country into entrepreneurs and consumers, while the workers are afterthoughts, poorly protected, and trod upon by all. (See the current debate over the fate of Detroit’s Big Three.)

My sympathies to the family of the dead worker, and my hostilities to both Wal-Mart for manufacturing this artificial frenzy (look at all the bargains! Look at the idiots! Don’t be left out and get your ass down here while there’s still some good stuff left!) and the crazed maenads they summoned up by their stupid sale. May they all be prosecuted for negligent homicide.

But when I was growing up in Rochdale, Green Acres was something else; the mall; shoppers heaven. I remember pestering my mother so we could go to Green Acres, sometime in the spring of 1967, to purchase Sgt. Pepper, though all the times my mom dragged me there to purchase pants or a shirt all sort of fade together. Green Acres was one of the first shopping malls on Long Island, and when we first moved there it was much as it was when it opened in the mid-1950s, an open air mall, with the shoppers exposed to the elements as they made their rounds of bargain hunting. In around 1968 the mall was enclosed, fully weather controlled. I remember being quite impressed by this technological marvel. Green Acres had become its own world, unattached and separate, much as its owners had intended.

But this freedom from the world’s travails cannot be said of the other shopping area close to Rochdale, on Jamaica Avenue. This was probably a bit closer than Green Acres, and was much more accessible by public transportation-almost every bus you would take from Rochdale, by definition, would cross Jamaica Avenue, the supposed dividing line between Jamaica proper and South Jamaica. Jamaica Ave. was a great shopping area, where, I think in 1936, Michael Cullen opened the first King Kullen, the prototype of the modern supermarket, where the customers pushes the carts rather than the grocer getting you stuff from behind the counter. In my time, there was a Macy’s, and several Macy’s wannabees on the avenue, such as May’s and Gertz’s, and many other stores, along with the Loews Valencia, one of those bejeweled movie palaces of the 1920s. But the big difference between Jamaica Ave and Green Acres in the mid-1960s was that the clientele on Jamaica Avenue was predominantly black, and that in Green Acres was predominantly white. Since the 1930s, when there was a Jamaica equivalent of the Harlem “don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign there were efforts made to force the Jamaica Ave retailers to hire more, and more visible black workers. Promises were made, in the 1930s, in the mid-1940s, and again in the early 1960s when the so-called Rochdale Movement, an offshoot of the demonstrations at the Rochdale construction site, started to picket Jamaica Avenue stores. This was a fairly radical movement—Malcolm X came to Jamaica to speak to a rally of the Rochdale Movement on Nov 28, 1963, perhaps his penultimate appearance as a minister of the Nation of Islam. (His notorious “chickens coming home to roost speech” was only a few days later, on December 1.) This and similar promptings finally opened Jamaica Avenue to black employees in a serious way, but as so often happened in the 1960s, the victory was pyrrhic. The beginning of widespread black employment coincided with a sharp and essentially irreversible decline of Jamaica Ave as a commercial center, the fate of so many urban shopping districts. Few of the stores from its glory period remain.

So, more and more black people came to Green Acres. After I left Rochdale in the 1970s this became a problem, and by the 1990s there were plenty of snide comments about the “Rochdale crowd” coming to Green Acres for its shopping and movie going, and complaints that the local security forces had different standards for black and white teenage mall milling about. I’m not sure how this was resolved but I suspect that Green Acres shoppers are far more “diverse” in their racial background than it was forty years ago. And the unfortunate man who was killed at Mal-wart was an African immigrant. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, but I think we need a new slogan. “ Don’t buy where you can’t work,” is a struggle that has more or less been won. Perhaps the new slogan should be “don’t work where they don’t treat you as a human meaning, and where both employees and customers are treated as cattle,” or “don’t buy anything that involves you queuing at 5 am in the morning.” Or simply “don’t buy anything that might involve a charge of criminally negligent homicide.” In any event, once again my deepest sympathies to the family of the deceased.


Anonymous said...

Very true, Peter. I wonder if any of the bargain seekers, even now, have the slightest sense of guilt over what happened.

Iver said...

Agreed. I grew up in Rochdale Village, and Green Acres seemed like heaven on earth to me. Wal-Mart is getting a lot of good publicity for its green initiatives. I hope it is becoming a more responsible employer as well.