Between November 2018 and February 2019, the world's largest company (Amazon) and the United States largest city (New York) found a bizarre, absurd and often widespread audience.
In just three months, all of the following happened: Amazon announced that they had chosen New York as a place for one of the two new headquarters; the deal they hit with the city and the state of New York was announced; groups representing workers, tenants and immigrants organized furiously against Amazon, while the mayor, governor, and agreement supporter encrypted to defend it; several key politicians ̵
In recent days, New Yorkers have celebrated or sat down, depending on their position, and discussing with each other what just happened and what it meant. It was obviously not just a one-off battle between a disgusting billionaire and a terrible population. New York's dizzying dance with Amazon tells us a lot about the state of urban politics in the United States and what kind of struggle we need to engage if we want to change the balance between corporate and peoples power.
Much has been done by the fact that the United States federal system allowed Amazon to host a competition for cities across the country to run to the bottom to prove they want to offer the company generous grants, comprehensive tax breaks and law rules. This is actually a travesty that should be dealt with legally, but it is also a demonstration of the enormous power corps capital movements by determining the urban planning priorities for cities.
It also shows the changing economic mix that US planners and policemen are seeking to attract. While previously accused of "smokestack hunting", or preparing competitive packages to lure factories from a city the next, cities are now engaged in "skyscraper hunting," or seeking massive investment in real estate (in this case, in the future of technology business growth ).
Around the country we have witnessed the rise of the real estate state, a fraction of the government whose interests are always aligned with increasing land and property values . At the municipal level, we see planners presenting gentrification as a public good to be encouraged; At the national level, we are witnessing the choice of a luxury developer for our highest office. Amazon sought to capitalize on this frenzy and rightly predicted that politicians across the country would design ways to welcome them and the real estate capital they call.
The particular location of the proposed metropolitan area of the New York City Amazon was telling. Long Island City, Queens, had been the target of planned de-industrialization for over 35 years, with a number of governors and mayors attempting to relocate production and stimulate the proliferation of gentle corporate offices and luxury homes.
In the 1980s, the mayor Ed Koch and governor Mario Cuomo – the father of the modern New York governor and Amazon apologist Andrew Cuomo – were warmed up by giving a billion dollar subsidy to a mixed use development called Hunters Point South. The next mayor, David Dinkins, presented a Waterfront Plan that encouraged a wholesale transformation of the area, and his successor, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, offered generous subsidies for companies like MetLife to find there.
The pace of luxury development accelerated rapidly under mayor Michael Bloomberg after his 2001 rezoning. By luring Amazon to this place, Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio built on a long legacy of marginalization of production and law enforcement.
Finally, Bezos, Cuomo and De Blasio failed – they could not secure the consent of the people, who carried out a powerful and multi-fronted battle over the problems of housing, labor and immigration rights, business support, infrastructure requirements, survival of small businesses and more. In this way, the anti-Amazon movement presented an anti-corporate anti-gentrification mantle for other cities to pick up. In fact, since New Yorkers successfully stood up to Amazon, protests in Northern Virginia – the Amazon's other top pick – have intensified.
By rejecting the logic that cities should bend over backwards to welcome gentrifying, union-busting, homogenizing corporations, New Yorkers claimed a principle that has long been lacking in planning: that the public is the legitimate manager of a city's future.
It may sound obvious, but it is a major mission from regular planning practices, which tend to privilege the rights of owners and seek little more than the advice and consent of the rest of us. Public administration, on the other hand, is that the city is a collective product of residents' labor – in the form of material production of streets and buildings, cultural production of neighborhoods and common rooms, and social reproduction of residents and workers. The city's destiny belongs to those who did it, not just those who own it.
If cities are collective products, gentrification, in geologist Ipsita Chatterje's expression, is "theft of space from work and transformation to space of profit". Anti-gentrification movements like the one that scared away Amazon can be understood as part of the long legacy of the working class's struggle against alienation of labor by capital. In the classic cases, workers have upset the boss to steal the added value they created; Here the inhabitants rise up against developers and politicians to alienate people from the rooms they have built.
The city is an expression of popular will, and it will be encouraged to encourage the plans of those who seek to exploit their work. This type of mobilization is the key to defeating the corporate power and resisting the rise of the real estate situation. With Amazon on the move, the time is ripe to renew our pressure on public administration and reassess the purpose of city planning.