I’m writing these words in a coffee shop in the Seattle neighborhood of South Lake Union, formerly a wasteland of empty warehouses that the online retail giant Amazon has entirely rebuilt. In less than a decade, those rundown buildings that used to house (pretty good) experimental theater productions and (very fun) illegal raves have been torn down and replaced by a brand-new city. Tesla dealerships and preppy bars and a surprisingly excellent Goodwill thrift store outlet and swanky restaurants and yoga studios and food trucks have popped up on these once-desolate streets, all as shiny and new as a toy on Christmas morning.
Amazon is the engine of this growth. Its young employees — and their loyal army of small but stately dogs — fill the sidewalks and patronize these new businesses. According to the Seattle Times, Amazon, now the biggest employer in the city, has filled nearly one-fifth of the office space downtown — over 8 million square feet. In 2010, Amazon employed 5,000 people locally. By 2020, it’s estimated that the company will have 55,000 employees here.
And that’s about to happen all over again in New York.
This week, Amazon announced that it would build large campuses in a Virginia suburb outside Washington, DC, and Long Island City, a neighborhood in New York City’s Queens. The announcement came after a yearlong reality-show-style quest for “HQ2,” which would supposedly become Amazon’s second-but-equal corporate headquarters. Washington’s response to the announcement was mostly celebratory, but New York’s has been mixed, ranging from a rare glowing press conference held jointly by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to a series of critical tweets issued by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a scathing editorial from the New York Times editorial board.
The Times reports that Amazon will bring as many as 25,000 employees to its Queens campus, eventually filling as much as 8 million square feet of office space. (By comparison, Queens employers have created just over 100,000 jobs in total over the last decade.) That’s a tremendous number of new jobs for one employer — even a city as seemingly unending as New York can’t absorb that kind of growth without a shock to the system.
While the media and elected officials argue over billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies and helipads for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the question most New Yorkers care about is this: What does this mean — actually mean — for the people of New York?
First off, more jobs means more people. And all those bodies have to go somewhere: People need homes, and people need to commute from home to work. As you might expect from a city that added 100,000 residents in less than a decade, Seattle’s commute has worsened dramatically; we now have some of the worst traffic on the planet, and our meager public transit system is groaning under increased demand.
All those well-paid young Amazon employees tipped Seattle’s housing market into a frenzy. In less than a decade, the city’s average rent skyrocketed from $1,020 a month to a high of nearly $1,700 a month. The average home price has leaped to over $800,000. These are price tags that lower- and middle-class Seattleites simply can’t afford to pay.
Seattle is now more than ever a city of haves and have-nots living in uneasy proximity. Multiple studies have proven that homeless populations rise in direct relation to rent increases. A report from Zillow finds that a 5% rent increase in New York City — which is all but guaranteed, given Amazon’s dramatic proposal — would leave 3,000 more people on the streets.
Those aren’t hypothetical numbers. Travel to Seattle now and you’ll see tent cities sprouting up like mushrooms under our highways and bridges. Unhoused people suffering from psychotic episodes wander around the streets until they become enough of a danger to themselves and others that they get scooped up by police for a few nights, and then they’re released to start the cycle over again. Three years ago, Seattle's then-mayor, Ed Murray, announced a state of emergency to draw attention to Seattle’s homeless populations. Today, we’re still in a state of emergency, but almost nothing has changed.
On the bright side (for those who can afford to live here), Seattle is now a world-class restaurant city. All those young and overworked programmers need to eat, after all, and as a result, we have more drinking and eating places than at any time in our history. Thanks to a progressive local government that embraced a $15 minimum wage before any other big American city, the workers in those restaurants might be able to afford an apartment in Seattle — as long as they don’t mind living with roommates. Our unemployment numbers are at record lows, and you still can’t walk three blocks in the downtown area without stumbling across some sort of construction.
But those are the quantifiable effects of Amazon. Scratch the surface, talk to a local, and you’ll discover a different price tag — one that’s not so easily measured through economic data points.
After all those Amazon employees leave their offices at night and take to the streets of South Lake Union, what do they do? Aside from a few restaurants and bars, there’s not much going on: South Lake Union doesn’t have any theaters or nightclubs or bookstores or concert venues. When the hardiest workers have finally caught the last bus home to their Capitol Hill condos or their Ballard craftsman houses, the neighborhood feels something like an amusement park after closing time. You can build a city in less than a decade, turns out, but you can’t force people to live there.
That post-rapture quietude doesn’t just end at the borders of South Lake Union. Publicly, the leaders of Seattle nonprofit arts organizations — always hoping against hope for a large donation or grant — love to talk up the importance of Amazon to Seattle arts, but privately they have complained to me that they can’t figure out how to attract upscale young Amazon employees to their programming. Aside from their consumption of craft beer, doggy day care, and regional Thai cuisine, Amazon’s tech workers don’t seem to contribute much to the cultural life of the city. While there are sadly no reliable censuses for artistic data in Seattle, anecdotal evidence suggests that these tech workers are not, in large part, making or consuming art. (Local art consultant Stacie Feinstein grumbled to the Stranger that “the common Amazonian wants a flat-screen TV,” not art.) They’re ordering takeout from Caviar and staying in.
The problem isn’t just at the employee level. The truth is, Amazon has always been a bad neighbor. The Seattle Times in 2012 called Amazon “a virtual no-show in the civic life of Seattle,” and that still sounds about right today. Unless it’s looking for publicity for a new Echo gadget, the self-described “bashful company” is notoriously silent. In my 10 years of reporting on Amazon in Seattle, its PR department has never once returned one of my dozens of requests for comment on its business practices. It’s not just the media that’s being stonewalled — Amazon’s management also failed to establish any meaningful relationship with local elected officials. As New York saw with the HQ2 beauty pageant, Amazon prefers to keep everyone guessing what its next move will be.
Bucking nearly a century of American business tradition, corporate philanthropy basically doesn’t exist at Amazon. Ten years ago, I called the company out for its lack of support for local arts organizations. In response, Amazon hired one (white) man to oversee the company’s arts philanthropy. (He left a few years ago and has been replaced by another white man.) Now, probably to alleviate the bad reputation the company has fostered as an enemy of independent bookstores and publishers, Amazon gives tens of thousands of dollars annually to publishers and writing organizations. (To put that number to scale, Business Insider recently determined that Bezos, the world’s richest man, earns $2,489 per second.)
Boeing, formerly the largest employer in the greater Seattle region, contributed $1.3 billion to community pursuits over the last 10 years. In comparison, Amazon has offered a pittance. The company has given $1.5 million to the city of Seattle to increase bus service for its employees, and it’s teamed up with a local provider to assist homeless families and emergency services.
These programs — well-publicized though they were — amount to slapping a Band-Aid on top of a brain tumor. The growth we’re seeing in Seattle and our booming homeless population are two sides of the same coin, but ask Amazon to pay for the problems it’s causing and all hell breaks loose.
This summer, Seattle’s City Council proposed a modest head tax — $275 annually per employee — on large employers to help fund affordable housing for priced-out Seattleites. In response, Amazon, for the first time in its history, decided to barge into the civic conversation. The company halted construction on a downtown office tower and suggested that it would sublease the office space to another business rather than keep the space for itself.
After Amazon threw its temper tantrum, Seattle freaked out. When Kshama Sawant, who earned national fame as the only socialist city council member in America, held a rally to promote the head tax, she was shouted down by hard hat–wearing construction workers who were furious on Amazon’s behalf. Local media panicked at the prospect of Amazon leaving town and all but called for the impeachment of city leadership. The City Council passed the head tax, then shamelessly repealed it a few days later. It became abundantly clear to everyone in that instant who was really in charge.
Seattle’s homeless population continues to rise. Last month, someone shot and killed a homeless man, allegedly due to a dispute over a broken window. Long-term Seattleites can rattle off a list of working-class friends who have moved to more affordable parts of the country because they weren’t wealthy enough to survive in the city. And every artist in Seattle knows multiple peers — a poet, a cartoonist, a painter, an actor — who have been priced out. Smaller Washington cities like Spokane and Tacoma have enjoyed cultural resurgences fueled in part by Seattle’s creative exodus.
Seattle’s remaining creative community has unified in its rage at a new boogeyman. The artist John Criscitello protested the gentrification of Capitol Hill, Seattle’s gayborhood, with a series of compelling posters decrying Amazon’s brogrammer colonizers. (“TECH MONEY KILLS QUEER CULTURE DEAD” one poster read. Another: “WE CAME HERE TO GET AWAY FROM YOU.”) Seattle cartoonist Tom Van Deusen illustrated a series of comics starring Bezos as a horrendously awkward introvert who prefers the algorithmic company of his chirpy robotic sidekick Alexa over human contact. In one strip, Bezos relaxes by eavesdropping on the sounds of “two Amazon Echo users enjoying a lovemaking session.”
Things are getting worse. Meaner. Local socialist groups have started to use Bezos as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with American capitalism. His bald head pops up in street art encouraging workers to take up the fight against automation. The tourist-friendly Spheres — three intersecting four-story biodomes that serve as plant-festooned meeting spaces for Amazon management — are becoming a favored target of Seattle’s protest culture.
And earlier this summer, when I was walking through Columbia City — a traditionally black but rapidly gentrifying south Seattle neighborhood — I saw the remains of one graffiti artist’s overnight crusade. Roughly every 6 feet or so, this person had stopped to spray a message on the sidewalk, or a wall, or a road sign. The message was the same every time: “KILL BEZOS,” they wrote all over the neighborhood, in lurid crimson paint. But within a matter of hours, ever-accommodating to Amazon’s needs, city workers had the threatening messages scrubbed away. ●