Amazon Has New York Afraid of Becoming Seattle on Steroids
Higher rent. More tech bros. And a massive monopoly beloved by the people who run things getting a ton of tax breaks. Can it be stopped?
One day after Amazon revealed plans to descend on New York, Thomas Muccioli showed up to the first major protest against the $1 trillion company in the middle of a cold afternoon.
Muccioli, an NYC native, lives in Sunnyside, a largely Latino and Asian neighborhood that shares a border with Long Island City. His is an area of brownstones and bodegas that feels warm and welcoming, he said, striking a contrast with the chilly mix of glass and steel towers and industrial underpinnings that loom in LIC, where Amazon is set to open a new headquarters. It’s his neighborhood, Muccioli suspected, that legions of techies would soon be angling to rent or buy in.
“They’re not going to want to live in these glass houses,” he said, pointing to the high rises in Long Island City as about 150 people gathered on the patch of grass at Gordon Triangle on November 14. “They’re going to want to live where I live—where people have worked their whole lives to make it a desirable area.”
Donning a purple sweatshirt marking his volunteer work with Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, Muccioli joined union organizers and Queens residents holding up signs to decry the project for which Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo promised Amazon an estimated $3 billion in tax incentives. The politicians' case, like those made by leaders across the country hoping to bring Amazon to their own cities over the last year, was fairly straightforward: The richest corporation in America would bring upwards of 20,000 jobs with six-figure salaries, in addition to 15 years of construction jobs. “Amazon is committing to an annual payroll of over $3.75 billion annually within ten years,” Cuomo wrote in an op-ed, “far and away the state’s largest economic development and transaction in modern history.”
And in this case, the new Amazon HQ would be in line with NYC's attempt to position itself as the “Silicon Valley of the East” through both private and public investment in innovation labs, and workspaces in former industrial areas like Hudson Yards.
It’s hard to gauge the scale of opposition, but the uproar to what power-brokers portrayed as a win has been broad and ferocious—a reflection of what people living and working in the city are feeling at a time of political, social and community turmoil. The gig economy has helped drive alienated workers to take their own lives. Brick-and-mortar shops struggle to stay open. Local waterways have been degrading for years. Immigrant communities are stricken with fresh fears of deportation and disruption. Amid a wider housing crisis, gentrification is no longer an if, but a when, in almost every corner of each borough in America’s largest city.
Even with the 2008 market crash and unemployment crisis in their recent memory, most New Yorkers I spoke to were far too cynical to welcome a sweeping corporate savior. Instead, they wanted neighborhoods that felt like real communities, buildings where they could raise their children, restaurants and bars owned by people they knew, jobs that were not at the whim of a couple of rich white men. In that sense, Jeff Bezos’s new corporate playground could not have been announced at a worse time—the city has been spurred into yet another wave of activism by the Trump presidency, and seemed ready to fight like hell to limit the influence that Amazon might have, and maybe even save their home from following in Seattle’s footsteps.
“It has to do with the moment we’re in,” said Melissa Checker, an urban studies researcher and professor at Queens College in New York. “I compare it to Occupy Wall Street. Sometimes these moments feel bigger than they actually are. But I hope not.”
NYC Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer was not happy when I asked how the largest city in the country should negotiate with the retail giant poised to enter his district. “I’m not interested in negotiating with Amazon right now—we’re looking to stop this,” he told me.
Just last year, Van Bramer joined dozens of other local politicians in signing a plea for Bezos to bring his company to New York City. They were hoping, he recalled, for the still-promised economic boost and thousands of new jobs. But when de Blasio and Cuomo announced they would push the project through the governor’s economic development agency, bypassing input from the city council, many of the same local officials were taken aback. “Knowing what we know what we know now, we regret having signed it,” Van Bramer told me.
But even as politicians like Van Bramer began to resist locally, the leading light of the city’s anti-Amazon contingent had to be Ocasio-Cortez. Long Island City lies just outside the confines of her district, yet she was one of the first public officials to speak out directly against the toll Amazon was poised to inflict on housing prices, spotty infrastructure, and the working class after the news dropped last month. And she hasn't stopped: “From Minnesota to NYC, everyday people all over the country are organizing to resist Amazon’s predatory practices on working class communities,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a week after the announcement.
It’s no wonder a Democratic Socialist candidate like Ocasio-Cortez is a sort of Joan of Arc in this battle, even if her new responsibilities in DC were likely to keep her away from the frontlines, at least for a while. The Amazon deal came just one week after her general election victory—a win built on an anti-corporate platform, on Instagram stories set in her kitchen as she made ramen, on her speaking candidly about her own student loans and a gig behind the bar at a taco place in Union Square. And she understood, before many other Democratic candidates, that it’s not just diehard leftists who mistrust companies like Amazon in 2018.
While Google and Facebook have expanded their footprint in New York City in recent years, and the city has invested in technology hubs, Amazon has gone one step further. For one, it set off a yearlong national bidding contest in which cities handed over massive amounts of data in a quest to host the new headquarters. Then, as it did with the other half of its so-called “HQ2”—in Arlington, Virginia—Amazon announced its Long Island City plan without undergoing an open land-use review, which in New York is typically a span of at least several months during which the public is invited to participate and voice concerns. While this move is not against the law, it is part of a controversial, state-level rezoning process that has been used to push large projects through before, such as Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, now home to the Barclays Center.
State Senator Mike Gianaris, whose district includes Long Island City, said he would introduce new legislation barring the state from making other confidential deals with private companies. And he and Van Bramer refused a post-hoc invitation to participate on a community advisory council for the Amazon project, intent on resisting it entirely.
In other words, residents were left to the whims of the guys calling the shots in Albany and City Hall.
“There’s lots of issues that haven’t been addressed in the neighborhood, so this kind of feels like an ambush,” said Pichchenda Bao, who has worked as a medical assistant and poet and lived with her husband and sons in Long Island City for four years. “I don’t understand—it makes sense that businesses want to come here, but I don’t know why we need to give so much away.”
But perhaps the most significant—and intractable—complaints locals I spoke to had with Amazon’s timing reflected the massive distrust in Silicon Valley that has been simmering nationally over the last few years, only to erupt in the past several months. Facebook has been used by foreign powers and shady actors of all types to influence elections, even as the company employed dirty tricks to discredit critics. Airbnb is driving up rent costs in buildings across New York and other major cities. Twitter has allowed hate speech and online harassment to proliferate under its watch. Silicon Valley is no longer the quirky, exciting darling of the future, but instead, a new sort of Wall Street menace with younger, hoodie-wearing barons wielding unprecedented power.
And Amazon, once a convenient online bookstore, might be as popular as ever with Gen-Z and Millennial consumers, and your parents. But the company itself is rife with dubious practices. Its structure is set up such that other businesses are made to become dependent on its operations, feeding a litany of antitrust concerns and erecting a quiet monopoly. And it has been accused many times of bad labor practices, undermining unionizing efforts, and even participating with ICE to deport undocumented workers.
“They’re more than willing to hand over face recognition technology, so our communities are scared,” said Marilyn Mendoza, an education justice coordinator with Make the Road, an immigrant rights organization. Mendoza, who lives in the Queens neighborhood of Corona and joined Van Bramer at a Cyber Monday protest against Amazon, suggested stopping the company from entering Queens was already futile. But she was hoping more public activism might soften the blow. “The least they can do is respect us," she said.
For these communities in Long Island City and around Queens, the promise of jobs, in particular, didn’t seem to land—few of those I spoke to expected the new work to actually benefit their communities. While Amazon was committed to at least 20,000 jobs, at an average salary of $150,000, economists, likewise, were skeptical of any kind of dent in inequality stemming from Amazon's arrival.
“These jobs are going to be white-collar, professional jobs, or digital jobs,” Mark Muro, a senior fellow and director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, DC who studies the technology labor market, told me. He added, however, that there was still potential for the city and Amazon to work together and train people for some of the work available, a combination of short-term construction work and technical jobs.
And it should be said that some Queens residents were ready to welcome the most notorious employer in American tech. “Right now I walk through that area and there’s a bunch of crappy hotels. Now a successful company is going to have high paying jobs,” said Peter Kauffman, a public affairs strategist and Astoria, Queens native who has worked for the state government in previous administrations.
Early on, the city provided no clear public information as to how the company planned to roll out the new HQ. But even as there was little blueprint for what Amazon might mean in an already-gentrified metropolis, New Yorkers were looking westward to Seattle, Amazon’s home-base, as a sort of eerie crystal ball.
“You see [what has happened] in Seattle,” Bao said about neighborhoods changing. “The way companies on the West Coast have used their political clout not to address these modern problems of segregation, or disparity. There’s a real patronizing view toward people who don’t make $100,000 starting.”
It’s no stretch to apply some of the lessons of the first Amazon headquarters to New York, even if the move's effects might be mitigated by NYC's sheer size and pre-existing infrastructure. In fact, the impact could be worse, given the crumbling transportation system and already-inflated rents. In Seattle, rents have risen 39.8 percent in the past five years (in New York, rents had started to level off in many areas, and even decrease in some last year). In Seattle, as in New York, people of color have been threatened: the black population in Seattle’s historically black neighborhood Central District has shrunk, and some highly-skilled workers from countries like India who were once courted by tech companies were stuck in a visa backlog.
“It’s become increasingly white,” Melissa Hellmann, a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly alternative newspaper, told me of the Central District. “There’s more displacement. People are moving out and further south.”
Long Island City in particular was already undergoing rapid development and gentrification—it was dubbed the fastest-growing neighborhood in the country—and the Amazon deal immediately had an impact: Interest in local real estate spiked in the first couple of weeks in November, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon employees were laying claim to condos prior to the official announcement. Some reports suggested housing prices jumped before the move was public, too.
“This moves Queens into the next phase of gentrification where you can’t even afford a house if you make six figures,” said Rachel Laforest, a Queens native and executive director of the Retail Action Project, who has worked on tenants’ rights advocacy for years. Laforest, who attended the initial protest in Long Island City led by Bramer and Gianaris, said the mayor and governor let the community down.
To add to the strained infrastructure, Checker, the urban studies expert, argued the city couldn’t handle more environmental threats, noting that Amazon promised to bring with it more people and construction, which typically means more pollution, garbage, and crowds. “It’s bad for our waterfronts,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of things that go along with major development that haven’t been addressed.”
But it wasn’t just socioeconomic or environmental constraints New Yorkers were worried about: they also feared the loss of authenticity and local culture. That anxiety extended across Queens, long known for its immigrant pockets of Greeks, Indians, Bangladeshis, Italians and other living examples of the people who built the city. An Amazon campus in Long Island City was expected to have ripple effects through areas like Jackson Heights, parts of the Bronx, and the historically Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
Heather R. Morgan, a software entrepreneur and CEO of SalesFolk, said she moved from San Francisco to New York to get away from the “monolithic culture” of the tech industry. Out West, apart from the stark increases in the price of housing, she felt like she was surrounded by overworked, burned out start-up entrepreneurs, and neighborhoods that catered to them. “There’s this lack of variety—it’s almost cult-like,” she said. “All of my friends who were not in tech left.”
Morgan was more optimistic about New York, where she lived with her boyfriend in Manhattan. She described it as a global city, where the diversity in jobs and people rendered it too resilient to become flattened by any particular industry, and even Amazon.
But some Seattleites argued trouble was virtually inevitable when a company of this magnitude comes to town. Hellman told me multiple small restaurants, including the last local Cambodian spot, had closed down in her area, only to be replaced by higher-end establishments. And people who lived in Seattle before the Amazon boom couldn’t help seeing company’s employees as a kind of caricature. “It’s pretty much people who work 80 hours a week and never leave the office,” said Gillian Caples, a 28-year-old Seattle native who works at Microsoft and lives on the city’s west side. “It’s the whole tech bro thing, they’re very socially awkward.” The New York Post went so far as to express fear about the city's dating scene.
Caples said the company had brought some welcome changes, too—investments in public transit, economic growth, and a different kind of ethnic diversity in the people of the city. (This could give some hope to New Yorkers wondering if Amazon might spell chaos for the already-troubled subway system—the 7 and G trains reaching Long Island City were already going to be strained by the pending L shutdown—or actually support better infrastructure.) But there’s also heavy traffic, skyrocketing rent, and crowds. “It’s kind of a running joke in Seattle, whenever there’s a problem, we blame it on Amazon,” Caples told me.
Kauffman, however, argued cultural shifts were not new for Queens, where waves of immigration and gentrification were a fact of city life, with or without Amazon. “That’s what makes New York City New York City,” he said. “I understand the challenges here—I’m not in any way undermining them. But it’s always been changing.”
Most of the people I spoke to after the announcement saw Amazon’s new headquarters as a done deal—a behemoth to be handled and resisted at the margins with the help of Ocasio-Cortez and other leaders. They were hoping to protect what they loved about Queens: the tiny eateries, the last bastions of affordable apartments, and the few public lands that could still be turned into housing or parks. “This completely transforms the fabric of Queens,” Laforest, the local organizer, told me. “I want to make sure anyone whose employed by this company is able to feed their children, afford a place to live, live a life of dignity.”
But Van Bramer, the city councilman, insisted it wasn’t time to think that far ahead—not yet. “I don’t think we’re ready to abandon the campaign,” he told me. “I don’t think this is moving on any time soon. If anything, we’re seeing renewed interest and it's heating up all the time.”
He might be right. Even on a cold, rainy Monday last week, more than a hundred people showed up at the Long Island City courthouse to hold signs, speak, and march to the office of New York State Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan—who has supported the Amazon deal—demanding their government answer questions. Earlier that day, dozens of organizers and residents also swarmed into a brick-and-mortar Amazon store in Manhattan. The message was simple: New York wasn’t going to be railroaded by a tech monopoly.
Meanwhile, Long Island City’s inhabitants were waiting, albeit not patiently, to learn their fate. Rocking her son in a stroller at an Amazon protest, Pichchenda Bao was just looking for answers: “It’s hard to say if we’re going to be able to stay here, and contribute to the city the way that we want to.”
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