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Gentrification on Steroids — Amazon is Coming to a City Near You

Amir Khafagy Sep 28

Amazon, the world’s largest online shopping retailer, unveiled plans this month to open a second North American headquarters. Well, not plans exactly, more like a proposition that it is dangling in front of every major city with a population over a million people. Amazon has given cities just six weeks to present proposals that conform to the company’s stipulations.

By holding a bidding, Amazon, much like the organizations behind the World Cup and the Olympics, is dictating its requirements to city governments. Cities, under pressure not just from Amazon but from real estate interests eager to see property values rise, are competing against one another in an absurd race to the bottom to desperately woo the company.

Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and others are throwing their hats in the ring, planning to submit proposals that provide massive tax breaks and concessions to the company. Though most of the coverage here locally has focused on the notion that our mayor has never ordered anything online, more appalling is that Bill de Blasio would enlist New York in this perverse courting ritual. With cities battling each other like gladiators and Amazon acting as emperor, poor and working-class urban dwellers will serve as sacrificial casualties.

If there is any city better prepared for battle it’s got to be New York. As far as potential goes, being the largest city and market in the country is sure to help. It also might help that Amazon has already made inroads into New York. The company recently announced plans to open one of its notoriously cruel, gigantic distribution warehouses in Staten Island of all places.

With cities battling each other like gladiators and Amazon acting as emperor, poor and working-class urban dwellers will serve as sacrificial casualties.

Amazon claims the facility will create a whopping 2,250 permanent jobs, making it the largest employer in the borough. As expected, a flurry of press releases from the offices of local and state politicians, including the governor, went out celebrating how wonderful the warehouse is going to be to the local and state economy. Not one of those press releases mentioned the fact that however permeant those jobs might be, not one of those jobs will be protected by a union. They also made no mention of the company’s cavalier use of union busting tactics or the unfair labor practice allegations made by workers in Amazon warehouses across the nation. Workers have been routinely harassed and fired for attempting exercise their collective bargaining rights within the toxic, anti-union culture that pervades the company’s distribution centers.

Nor did those same politicians make mention of the massive taxpayer-funded corporate welfare package that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is gifting Amazon for locating in the metro area. New Yorkers will be subsidizing Amazon — one of the wealthiest companies in the world — in the form of a “tax credit” to the tune of $18 million. According to data from FactSet, a financial research firm, Amazon is valued at more than $430 billion. That’s more than Australia’s 2016 national budget. It doesn’t look to me that Amazon is in need of any handouts. ESDC says Amazon will only be given the tax break with the guarantee that it will maintain at least 886 jobs in the state over the next five years. With Amazon ever more reliant on automation, who knows how many jobs will be left after five years?

As if the location of a massive, exploitive distribution center in Staten Island isn’t enough to seal the deal for the headquarters, New York is betting hipster and tech-friendly Brooklyn — a borough that itself has become a brand — will draw Amazon and its affluent white-collar talent pool to the city. Crain’s reports that developers including Rubenstein Partners, Forest City Ratner and Jamestown Properties — the later of which owns the massive Industry City in Sunset Park — are joining forces to lure Amazon to the booming and increasingly unaffordable Brooklyn waterfront.

How about companies like Amazon adapt to our interests?

If Amazon settles in Brooklyn, the consequences will be dire for working-class communities of color like those in Sunset Park. Housing stock will thin out and rents will skyrocket, as Amazon’s workforce swarms the borough. The average yearly salary for a white collar Amazon employee is approximate $100,000, while the median household income for a Sunset Park family is $39,834 a year. The company is looking to hire an estimated 50,000 new employees. It would be gentrification on steroids.

There needs to be a public policy shift in this country that doesn’t allow massive multinational corporations to bully and dominate our cities into submission. Cities shouldn’t have to fight over what few crumbs corporations throw down to their citizens. How about companies like Amazon adapt to our interests? No incentives should be given that compromise the lives of working people in favor of satisfying soulless corporations. Imagine what could be accomplished if, rather than offering these companies tax breaks, the money collected from corporate taxes were invested in the communities that make our cities function. Unless we turn the tables, we’ll one day end up reading about how wonderful and diverse the old working-class Sunset Park used to be on an eBook you bought on your Amazon Kindle.

Amir Khafagy is a self-described “Arab-Rican” New Yorker, born and raised. A political activist, organizer, writer, performer and spoken word artist, Amir is currently perusing a masters degree in Urban Affairs at Queens College. He can be reached at amirkhafagy@gmail.com.

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Photo credit: Robert Scoble.