New York, New York: a Resounding Victory for New York Over Amazon

As a New Yorker, I have always been fascinated by why New York Yankee baseball caps are so popular around the world. New York has a reputation, “We’re number one, baby,” that obviously has global resonance.

As Frank Sinatra crooned:

I want to wake up, in a city that never sleeps
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap…

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…

New York, New York
I want to wake up, in a city that never sleeps
And find I’m A number one, top of the list
King of the hill, A number one…

“King of the hill, Top of the heap…top of the list…A number one…” That’s what it means to be New York. Iconic addresses such as Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center. Iconic buildings such as Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, Yankee Stadium; that is New York, the biggest, the best.

When Amazon announced in September 2017 that it was accepting bids from cities across North America for a place to build another headquarters after Seattle, a bidding war ensued. Many major cities in the U.S. and Canada jumped in with offers. Two hundred proposals were whittled down to 20 finalists.

And for good reason. “We expect HQ2 to be a full equal to our Seattle headquarters,” CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement. “Amazon HQ2 will bring billions of dollars in up-front and ongoing investments, and tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. We’re excited to find a second home.”

When the winning bid was announced in November, New York was chosen, obviously. Where else could Amazon go? “King of the hill, Top of the heap…top of the list…A number one…” And what a deal. Amazon promised to build a $2.5 billion campus in Long Island City, Queens, employ at least 25,000 people and generate $27 billion in tax money for the City and State over the next 25 years.New York offered considerable incentives to the tune of up to $1.7 billion in grants and tax breaks provided by the State and $1.3 billion by the City.

A perfect marriage between the world’s most valued listed company (estimated at $1 trillion), the world’s richest man (estimated worth $136 billion) and the Big Apple (“We’re number one, baby”).

But just as Bezos is in divorce proceedings with his wife, Amazon and New York are splitting up. Last week, Amazon pulled out of the deal. “New York is in a unique position to stand up and draw a line, because Amazon is not bigger than New York,” said Michael Gianaris, the Democrat state senator from Long Island City and a leader of the opposition. “We have the ability to set the tone for the nation.”

Bezos had assumed that New York would roll over, as so many others had, because of his and Amazon’s wealth.He didn’t count on local opposition. Labor leaders, public housing residents, community activists and the working people of Queens rose up to question what was in it for them. Opponents in the city council and state legislature questioned the priority of using taxpayer money to entice Amazon instead of subsidizing public transit and affordable housing. “There wasn’t a shred of dialogue,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Out of nowhere they just took their ball and went home.”

Was Bezos incapable of negotiating and assuaging locals’ concerns about the implications of the Amazon headquarters for their lives? Could Bezos not appreciate the growing anger and frustration with large corporations? (Can President Emmanuel Macron truly sympathize with the yellow vests movement?) “The lesson here is that corporations can’t ignore rising anger over economic inequality, anymore…We just witnessed another example of what the concentration of power in the hands of huge corporations leaves in its wake.” Mayor de Blasio wrote in a New York Times Op-ed piece.

The Amazon/New York divorce is a warning that for many New Yorkers, iconic New York, already gentrified in Manhattan and Brooklyn, has gone beyond its limits. Residents don’t won’t to be driven out because of exorbitant housing prices. They would not accept Long Island City going the way of Park Slope and even Harlem. And, in a larger warning about federal money being spent on walls and the military, they considered it time to look at real domestic U.S. problems such as infrastructure. Why should New York give away tax dollars when its public transit system and roads are a disaster?

Finally, and most important, this was a victory for civil society. Grassroots community activists from Queens organized an opposition right from the beginning when Amazon announced their plans in November. This organizing was key to Amazon’s pulling out, a valuable lesson for all protest movements.

For all the bragging about New York’s being number one because of iconic addresses and buildings, community organizers in Queens were able to outduel the world’s most valued company, a resounding victory for the people of New York and a very, very good reason to wear baseball caps with NY on the front.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.