Some 75 people stand holding signs along Watertown's Arsenal Street on Saturday morning as Mike Mandel shouts their goal: to keep Walmart from moving in up the road. Above them is a billboard that Mandel and his wife Chantal Zakari have rented for May and June by raising $4500 from more than 100 donors. It reads: "Imagine [here] nobigbox.info."
"We are both artists," says Mandel. In 1977, he and Larry Sultan assembled Evidence, a landmark collection of documentary photos they spirited out of government and corporate archives. More recently, Mandel has designed mosaics for airports, schools, and other public buildings. Zakari's 2005 book webAffairs recounted her journey into the world of erotic video-chat rooms. The couple's 2011 exhibit at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University explored political imagery in Zakari's native Turkey.
"Our talent is to communicate in a visual way," Mandel explains.
Adds Zakari, "We want the billboard to voice the community's opinion: We want Walmart out of town."
Arsenal Street could seem a natural spot for Walmart as it already offers Home Depot and Marshalls in the Arsenal Mall and Best Buy and Target at the Watertown Mall, as well as the Arsenal Center for the Arts, car dealerships, and building-supply firms. "We have enough of the big stores with Target down there and BJ's on the other side of town," says Gordon Brown, who holds a sign during the hour-long protest.
"We learned in the fall that Walmart had purchased a 20-year-lease on this property adjacent to the billboard," Mandel says. The community organization Sustainable Watertown rallied some 200 opponents to an October 24 forum at the library. Disappointed by city leaders' response to Walmart's proposal, Mandel launched a write-in campaign for town council a couple weeks before last fall's town election — and came within 89 votes of winning. His platform: "Stop Walmart."
Mandel and Zakari say Walmart will generate too much traffic, the company offers poor pay and benefits to workers, it fights unions, and it faces allegations of bribing Mexican officials. Walmart, Zakari says, would "ruin" the surrounding residential neighborhood and "kill any future potential development for the center of the town."
Town Council President Mark Sideris stops by and talks of keeping a mom-and-pop, "small-town feel here." Regarding Walmart, he says, "First of all, this is not the vision we have for this community. Second of all, they're not a good corporate citizen. We can do better."