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  • Susanna Williams

Amazon Will Not Save You

Updated: Dec 20, 2019


Author's note:

I initially published this blog post on September 22, 2017. Today, November 13, 2018, Amazon made the official announcement that their quest for a municipal suitor had been won by three cities:

Arlington, Virginia

Nashville, Tennessee

Long Island City, Queens

In the end, it wasn't really a scholarship pageant. It was a rigged beauty contest. Neither New York nor Arlington submitted the most compelling bids. Neither New York nor Arlington offered the most giveaways or the best training potential or the most housing or the highest quality infrastructure or the best educational outcomes. Neither New York or Arlington needs or even wants the estimated 25,000 jobs Amazon's HQ2.3 will bring. But we're getting them anyway. Despite the added pressures on housing markets that are already heartbreakingly unequal. Despite the intense demands that will be placed on two public transit systems and three highway systems cracking under years of underinvestment and increasing demand. But Jeff Bezos & Jeff Carney have homes in DC and, well, DC is the locus of political power in our country. And New York... New York's got the banks and the stature. It's sexy to have a HQ in NYC. It means you matter.

Nashville, which will be home to an operations center, may come out the best. The 5,000 jobs Amazon will bring there will actually be a good fit for middle skill workers who already live in Tennessee. This location will boost a burgeoning area and contribute to its increasing progressive bent. Now imagine if Amazon had decided to put its other HQ2s in communities like Nashville, or even pre-New Nashville. A community like Des Moines. Or Syracuse. Or Kansas City. Or Tulsa. Or Philadelphia.

Amazon could have been a game changer instead of contributing the the opportunity hoarding in cities that are already graced with an abundance of opportunity.

It could have been. It won't be. And I can't help but wonder- after leaving Seattle four years ago, am I about to see my now and forever home city similarly devastated by Amazon's thudding footprint?

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“There are crowds of people demonstrating outside my office, begging Amazon to come here...”

“Amazon, check out the Bronx!”

“LVEDC explains why the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania would be a perfect fit for @amazon's new headquarters”

Ever since Amazon announced that it was searching for a location for its second headquarters, we’ve seen a flood of think pieces and civic groveling.

Fundamentally, no one has a clue about how to create jobs. Amazon sounds like the TV dinner of workforce & economic development to communities hungry for economic opportunity. Unless Amazon hires local talent, however, they will import workers and pay them far above community scale in order to attract the candidates they want. That has a dramatic impact on the life of the community.

I lived in Seattle from 2004 – 2014, which was the era when Amazon consolidated its real estate holdings in the city into a massive urban campus in Seattle’s fading industrial South Lake Union neighborhood. Beginning in 2007, a massive building boom took over the city. It kept Seattle afloat during the economic downturn (although smaller, quieter economic tremors disrupted the foundations of the city in other ways). Construction cranes dotted the skyline with increasing density as the years passed. Warehouses were torn down. Affordable artist space vanished. Dive bars disappeared. And in their place rose a shiny new tech neighborhood, where dogs were welcomed in the offices and convenient studio apartments were built within walking distance of the office (the better to work long hours, my dear...) in modern mixed-use buildings, complete with ping pong tables for entertainment. Walking past residents playing games with ferocious intensity gave the strong impression of a passing a college dormitory.

I had friends move into shiny, new, rapidly and cheaply built loft apartments in the neighborhood and saw the artsy, funky vibe they’d reveled in as new pioneers slowly fade into a manufactured simulacrum of a Vibrant Community.

And I felt the impact. I felt the culture change. I saw hordes of well-paid coders imported by Amazon from other places pay San Francisco prices for New York size apartments in a city that had, until then, been considered affordable. I paid $450 a month for a one bedroom apartment in 2005. No sooner had the economic crisis ended than the Seattle real estate boom began. I was finally able to afford to buy a home in 2013... but, by then, I was too late. I was priced out.

I saw the traffic increase to road-choking levels at all hours of the day.

I witnessed the shift in the dating culture- more single men, sure, but with such intense work schedules (and, frankly, such poor social skills), that the inclination toward commitment, never strong in Seattle to begin with, all but vanished. When your real estate market is dominated by living spaces big enough for one person, you aren’t designing for cohabitation or families.

Perhaps worst of all, I saw a marked decline in the civic life of the city and a steep rise in inequality. More people than ever were using city services and civic infrastructure, but voting participation didn’t increase and the cultural vibrancy didn’t improve. More bars, sure, but the artists who had found Seattle to be a rich place to develop and experiment could no longer afford to live in or even near the city. More jobs, definitely, but the people getting hired for those jobs were moving in from elsewhere while Seattle's public education system remained stubbornly segregated and poor people were pushed further and further out of the city.

And Amazon’s culture is not that of a traditional major institutional partner. They didn’t support philanthropy or model community engagement. Their employees worked. Hard. Few were particularly happy. "Quality of life" was more an enticing scent than a lived experience. The phrase “golden handcuffs” became common in conversation- sure, you got a great hiring bonus, but if you left early, you had to pay it back. (Amazon is beginning to move away from the stick toward more carrot incentives.)

Furthermore, unlike Boeing and Microsoft, Seattle’s other two anchor employers, Amazon doesn’t spin out a network of supply chain businesses. It is an all-inclusive behemoth.

Amazon now holds 19% of the prime office space in Seattle. That’s a dangerous imbalance.

"We are at an interesting point in our history," a civic leader in Seattle recently told me. "We have an opportunity to ask what kind of city we want to be." That is a sweetly optimistic view of a situation that has gone far past that point. Seattle is now the kind of city Amazon wants it to be. From the SLUT to whatever this is, Amazon has reshaped Seattle.

It pains me to hear so many cities pleading for Amazon’s largesse. Because it is a devil’s bargain, to be sure.

Simply landing Amazon's blessing as the location of the second American headquarters is not a workforce and economic development strategy.

Any community that engages with Amazon needs to negotiate.

Insist on local hiring targets.

Identify career families and define the skills that will be needed in advance. Partner with local training providers to ramp up education so residents are prepared for the jobs that Amazon will bring. Without preparation, current residents will be shunted into the service jobs that support Amazon workers, further cementing the inequality that cities are desperate to escape.

Require that salaries be aligned with local prevailing wages- perhaps a little higher, but not outrageously misaligned.

Promote genuine quality of life benefits- access to the outdoors, bike trails, great schools, vibrant arts and culture, great coffee (this is critical)- and ask Amazon to support their improvement and upkeep.

Work with developers to assure that a mix of housing is built to allow for family growth.

Demand investments in civic infrastructure- high speed broadband access (maybe even make it free for all residents of the city?), roads, public transportation.

Get at least something out of this deal while you can.

Because Amazon is no white knight coming along on a trusty steed to rescue your community. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks.


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