Follow Up From Amazon HQ2

Photo Credit: Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY
Recently, Forums @ Civic Hall and
THE CITY, a new non-profit news startup, put together conversation titled, “Making  Tech Development Civic: Lessons from Amazon HQ2,” featuring diverse opinions from leaders in tech, labor, community organizing, and media.  This unique Forum offered an opportunity to think about what structural and political barriers prevented more community-centered and successful tech developments in the city.

The evening brought out some distinctly different perspectives and interests, but did some work in what moderator Alyssa  Katz, Deputy editor from THE CITY called a “recovery” process. She opened saying, “It is no exaggeration to call the recent episode of Amazon’s proposed construction of a massive office complex in Long Island City and its cancellation of those plans in the face of strenuous opposition a trauma for New York City, regardless of where one stood on the proposal. Like with other kinds of trauma, recovery from that trauma provides an opportunity for reflection and learning how to heal more strongly and that’s what this panel is going to begin to talk about doing tonight.”

This follow up document highlights some of the resources mentioned in the talk and key perspectives and concepts from the speakers. Find the Livestream here. You can also read the pre-Forum blog post here that includes a timeline for the deal and a variety of background articles.

Resources mentioned in the Forum

As promised, here are links to resources mentioned during the conversation.

  • Alyssa Katz mentioned this column she wrote for The Daily News about how Amazon hacked New York State’s and New York City’s economic development systems, meant for smaller enterprises and smaller projects.
  • The New Geography of Jobs, a book Deborah Axt mentioned, notes that tech companies don’t come to cities for the subsidy packages, but rather the ecosystem of talent and education. It is possible Amazon would have come regardless (and they are still expanding here!)
  • Shortchanged: Racial Disparities in New York’s Economic Development Programs” was a report created by Make the Road New York and the Fiscal Policy Institute.
  • Tale of Two Techs” is a report mentioned and written by Lena Afridi of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) about the pay gap between average wages of nonwhite workers and white workers in the tech sector.

Core Positions and Views

After Alyssa Katz on the far left of the livestream screen, they go from left to right:

  • Alyssa Katz  is Deputy Editor at THE CITY, a new nonprofit news startup dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves New Yorkers. She covered a lot of the Amazon HQ2 deal in her journalism so provided some fact-checking through the night. THE CITY also partnered with Civic Hall on this event.
  • Deborah Axt came representing Make the Road New York, a social justice organization that serves the economic and  social interest of their 23,000 dues-paying members who are mostly Latino immigrants and working-class people of color, many of whom are caught in the dragnet of Big Tech’s surveillance products.  Make the Road New York organized heavily against the Amazon HQ2 deal. Other than being cut out of the deal-making, these communities are often promised economic development from trickle-down benefits to corporations that just never materialize. Deborah pointed out that every 11.5 seconds, Jeff Bezos earns the annual income of the average Amazon warehouse worker; are tax breaks and subsidies really going to create enough economic growth to cover the taxes needed to train New Yorkers in tech? Improve public schools? Upgrade the subway system?
  • Julie Samuels is the Co-Founder of TechNYC, an organization that represents the interests of 730 tech companies and investors; Amazon is one of their members. Julie was also a member of the Amazon HQ2 Community Advisory Council, which consulted various interest groups in New York. TechNYC supported the deal for the tech ecosystem, jobs, and economic development it would have  brought. As she points out, there was an Memorandum of Understanding between Amazon and the City, and the idea was that after the deal, there would be time to work with the community more–perhaps a naive thought, Julie notes. She and many other supporters note that at the end of the day, New York would not have become part of Amazon, but Amazon would have become part of New York. 
  • Lena Afridi came from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), a coalition of 101 community groups that fights for housing justice and economic justice. Lena saw the Amazon HQ2 as a fight for who dictates how economic and real estate development occurs in New York. Three core themes emerged for Lena: 1) Displacement and tenant harassment often plagues areas where large-scale development projects occur, pushing out communities of color  2) How do we talk about land use? Who is in charge of that process given the Amazon HQ2 deal was done behind closed doors? 3) What does economic justice look like and who gets to make decisions about what our economy looks like? Immigrant communities in Western Queens did not have a say, until they stood up and fought back after seeing what happened in cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Lena invoked the concept spatial mismatch, describing how when a new tech company comes to a city, they might create new tech jobs and new service sector jobs, but the fast growth and rising costs of living also displace those new service workers, making the city too expensive to live in.
  • Alison Hirsh came from 32BJ, a labor union which represents everyone from commercial office cleaners and security officers, to airport workers to doormen in residential buildings. They represent 175,000  workers around the country with 85,000 in NYC. 32BJ was an advocate for the Amazon deal, citing the union jobs it would have brought and also the opportunity to change Amazon’s culture. To make sure new building developments include union jobs, 32BJ typically engages every new building going through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which most new developments must go through, though Amazon bypassed.  32BJ had an agreement in place for the property owners where Amazon HQ2 would have been built, confirming that those building workers would be union workers. Alison acknowledges it was a deal  behind closed doors but also “the most public bidding process for any large-scale economic development we had ever seen.” Amazon choosing NYC was a validation of progressive economic development agenda. Yes, a lot of corporations aren’t really great global citizens. Yet an opportunity to influence Amazon was lost when it left. The other HQ2 is in Virginia, which has a 4% union density and $7.25 minimum wage. What could have happened New York, a city with a strong density of union workers, had a chance to influence Amazon?

There is so much richness in this conversation. Take a listen!