Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NY Times' Monsey Journal

In this morning's NY Times the paper's Fernanda Santos does a nice synopsis of the (so-far) successful grass roots effort to defeat the proposed Wal-Mart super center in Monsey: "The news that the developer, and potentially Wal-Mart, had scrapped plans it had so diligently worked on gave observant Jews, who make up the bulk of the population here, reason to rejoice.
They had waged a modest yet unyielding campaign against the proposed store, which they feared would force too many outside influences into their insular world of Orthodox Judaism."

What the summary underscores is the extent to which the Monsey community, once activated, is not a force to be trifled with. As the Times points out: "The retailer made numerous attempts to woo the Jewish community. Company representatives met with rabbis and agreed to conceal the covers of celebrity magazines featuring photographs of scantly clad movie and television stars to avoid offending Jewish patrons. Wal-Mart also hired a firm to send mailings in Yiddish to local homes, asking residents to suggest ways the company could improve the area.
“A lot of us sent the mailing back to them with the words, ‘No, thanks,’ written at the top,” said a 36-year-old Hasidic man who has lived here for 18 years and who requested anonymity to keep with his religious tradition of modesty."

And then Monsey, with help from the Alliance, fought back: "Residents joined union workers for a rally in December 2006, and circulated petitions and ran ads in Yiddish and English every week for 32 weeks in a local newsletter, Community Connections. The ads warned of the additional traffic the store would attract and how it would expose their children to such unwelcome sights as bikinis and lingerie."

Ramapo Supervisor St. Lawrence, the key figure in any land use battle in the Town clearly got the message: "It also represented a political vindication of sorts for Christopher P. St. Lawrence, town supervisor of Ramapo, which encompasses Monsey, in the heart of Rockland County. He hung much of his re-election on a promise to keep the Wal-Mart out of Monsey. During his campaign, he mailed a flier to every home in Monsey, saying, “Supervisor St. Lawrence opposes the Monsey Wal-Mart.” Mr. St. Lawrence was elected to a fourth term in November."

The supervisor's successful re-election effort, needless to say, was no accident. Neither was his fervent support, which was generated in response to the community's persistent raising of its very serious concerns with Wal-Mart's potential harmful impacts: "Wal-Mart doesn’t vote for the supervisor,” said Rabbi Jacob Horowitz, one of Monsey’s most respected religious leaders. “The people vote for the supervisor. “We work very hard to raise our families the right way,” Rabbi Horowitz said. “And the supervisor understood that preserving our lifestyle is something that’s very important to us.”

That being said, it is also true that Monsey was not the kind of community that gets into these kinds of fights immediately with guns blazing; it's often afraid of the backlash from others who resent Monsey's organized political and community strength. The Alliance's role was to convince the Orthodox community that the methods used successfully in other Wal-Mart battles could work as well in Monsey: "These are not people who were schooled in the tactics of public protesting, or who even felt comfortable doing it,” said Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, a coalition of small-business groups that helped residents here wage their battle against Wal-Mart. “They never imagined they could beat a giant like Wal-Mart.”

So it looks like the Monsey battle has been a success; but the Wal-Mart folks, stung by defeat, have not quite thrown in the towel: "Philip H. Serghini, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said that the company had placed the plan “under review,” weighing the costs of pushing it forward against its potential benefits. To build here, Wal-Mart would have to overcome at least two obstacles: finding another developer and preparing a new environmental impact study. The town Planning Board rejected the one it received last June on the ground that the proposal to ease traffic on Route 59 with a combination of turning lanes and more traffic lights was inadequate."

If they decide to try again, the Monsey and the Alliance will be ready. Wal-Mart should, however, heed Rabbi Horowitz's words: “We were determined to make Wal-Mart uncomfortable because by making them uncomfortable, we thought they would eventually leave,” said Rabbi Horowitz, who is also the executive director of a social services agency here, the Community Outreach Center. “We’re very strong believers that everything comes from the Almighty,” he added. “I think the Almighty realized that for our children to grow up in a beautiful community, for our traditions to be preserved, we couldn't’t have a Wal-Mart.”