Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Amazon and the Urban Hypocrite

In the days before Amazon’s official announcement that it would situate its second headquarters in two locations, one of them in Queens, many New Yorkers were outraged by the impending incursion as they surely went about ordering their slow-cookers and folding chairs and heavily discounted copies of “Friday Black” from the company, for expedited delivery. The holidays, after all, are approaching.

I count myself among the hypocrites. Along with so many others who think about urbanism, I spent much of Monday ruminating on the paradox of a company with a trillion-dollar valuation receiving billions of dollars in tax credits for bringing high-paying, technocratic jobs to a place already full of them. During the last decade, the city has added 76,000 tech jobs. In September, New York State recorded its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years.

And yet Gov. Andrew Cuomo went after Amazon as if he were the desperate patriarch in a 19th century novel, ready to balloon the family dowry without limit all for the prospect of insuring that his daughter marry up, even if, in truth, she stood at the pinnacle and could have anyone. Was it really necessary that Amazon get its own helipad when there is one right across the river? Exhausted at the injustice, I tucked into bed at the end of the day with my iPad and streamed the second segment of “The Worricker Trilogy” on Amazon Prime, barely registering the contradiction.

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We have internalized our use of Amazon to such a degree that we have trouble recognizing our complicity in the manufacture of the company’s own arrogance. Last year, I witnessed an adult ask an 8-year old if he believed in Santa, to which the child replied, rolling his eyes, “Santa is Amazon.”

The company will arrive in Long Island City at a time when whole blocks in Manhattan and Brooklyn are distinguished by their empty storefronts, a consequence largely of rising commercial rents but also of the submission to fatigue over principle that occurs every time someone who genuinely believes in the importance of a thriving local merchant class shops by refusing to leave the house.

While theoretically Amazon might have established a fund to help the world of small businesses it has managed to destabilize, the company did not offer and, perhaps more tellingly, the city made no such demand. Instead the company will provide space on its new campus for artists and nascent entrepreneurs, which further aligns it with an image of urbane creativity that nearly every tech company seeks to maintain. In corporate philanthropy, self-interest is nearly always clasping the hand of largess.

Will the arrival of Amazon really be a boon to Queensbridge, the vast public housing complex, nearby, as Bill de Blasio seems to believe? (“The synergy,” as he put it, “is going to be extraordinary.”) The company has agreed to spend $5 million on job-training programs and internships and to participate in job fairs for a few years. But even if that were deemed sufficient, these developments would unfold within the context of the significant pay gap that plagues the technology industry in New York. Two years ago, research from the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development found that Latinos earned, on average, two-thirds of what their white counterparts did, and blacks made half as much.

Beyond that, in choosing New York and suburban Washington over the Pittsburghs and Denvers that Amazon had said it was considering, it already made its elitist commitments very clear. It would not be seduced by the notion of experimentation; it would go where it was most likely that standing in line at a CVS at 7 in the evening, you would run into someone from the Harvard class of 2004.

The second decade of the 21st century has been a golden period in the history of American urbanism, as midsize cities have undergone a renaissance, with cities like San Antonio growing at a faster rate than places like Los Angeles or Boston. This is the outcome, to some extent, of the affordability crisis in major American cities and the dispersal of cultural capital that has come with it. Once moribund downtown neighborhoods in Birmingham, Ala., or Providence, R.I., for example, are full of new galleries, theaters, restaurants, businesses. Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of Amazon’s search process and its result is that it chose not to join that narrative, to further stimulate the engines of growth. (As part of its announcement this week the company said it would open a smaller operations facility in Nashville, but honestly, isn’t that like winning the steak knives when you really wanted the Buick?)

The average salary for jobs at the new Amazon headquarters will be $150,000, the company has said. In Indianapolis it would go quite far; in New York City, that wouldn’t disqualify you for a housing subsidy.

On Tuesday afternoon, various politicians and business leaders issued statements testifying to their delight in Amazon’s decision. Among them was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor who gave us the framework for the vertical city both literally and figuratively — a city of high-tech skyscrapers and top-down governance that laid to rest whatever communitarian ambitions and Jane Jacobs fever dreams remained. Amazon is coming to New York without the input of the City Council or the community in which the company will find itself. They were to be quiet and grateful.

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