Amazon’s Retreat and the New Politics of Tech

What Amazon pulling out of Queens means for the urban growth machine

Graffiti in Queens reads "Amaz-no"
Mark Lennihan / AP

Well, that didn’t take long.

Amazon announced today that it was “not moving forward” with the plans to build out a massive corporate office, which it called HQ2, in Long Island City, Queens. The announcement followed months of intense opposition by activists and local politicians dismayed that Amazon would receive up to $2.5 billion in tax subsidies to—as they saw it—accelerate the gentrification of local neighborhoods.

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment,” Amazon sniffed, “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

Critics such as state Senator Michael Gianaris blasted the statement. “Like a petulant child, Amazon insists on getting its way or takes its ball and leaves,” Gianaris told The New York Times. “The only thing that happened here is that a community that was going to be profoundly affected by their presence started asking questions … Amazon admits they will grow their presence in New York without their promised subsidies. So what was all this really about?”

Securing subsidies was certainly one thing the HQ2 search was about, using the great game to paper over what has become a common tactic—leveraged by corporations from sports teams to Tesla to Foxconn—of playing local regions off one another to secure sweet deals. These economic-development deals have not always gone well. Companies don’t deliver on their promises or change plans. Teams leave. Cities, somehow, are usually left holding the bag, and by bag, I mean debt.

Nonetheless, cities kept doing it, driven by a model that the sociologist Harvey Molotch described as “the city as growth machine.” It’s as if Molotch was describing the actual HQ2 search in his 1976 paper.

“An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another,” he wrote. “Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal level, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities.”

As residents of the biggest winners of the city lottery—say, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Denver, Washington, D.C.—have found, a rich city is great for the rich, but it’s very hard on everyone whose labor is not valued as highly as tech engineers and financiers. The poor are forced to the outer reaches of the metro area, or suffer ever greater alienation from the changing city around them. As the West Oakland activist Brian Beveridge once put it, in a rising tide, “all boats don’t rise, because people don’t have a boat.”

San Francisco now serves as a metaphor for how tech money can transform even one of the most charming and irascible cities into a place where no teachers can afford to live, even young rich people are terrified of losing their apartments, and longtime residents mutter under their breath as they wander through suddenly alien streets.

These cities are the spatial embodiment of the rocketing inequality of the past several decades, which shows that it’s quite easy to grow a city, or a nation, or a global economy while only the very, very, very rich eat up all that income growth.

And what better avatar for this situation than Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest man, versus Queens? Deposed Uber CEO Travis Kalanick played a similar role in the company’s canceled new corporate headquarters in uptown Oakland. These guys are bad, opponents said—why are we inviting them into our city? Or as activists put it candidly, in nearly daily graffiti on the in-progress building, “Fuck Uber!”

For decades, cities’ answer to the questions posed about their economic practices has been simply, These projects bring jobs. But urban activists have finally found an opponent that is easier to beat than the Raiders or even a condo builder: the technology industry.