Stay Away, Amazon

June 21, 2018
By

As Amazon narrowed its list of city choices for its HQ2 from 238 to 20 in January, journalists, bloggers, and civic leaders were furiously trying to square up the finalists against one another to guess which city would reel in the multibillion-dollar, 50,000 job promising whale. The finalists range from the sprawling southern metropolises of Dallas and Atlanta to East Coast staples Washington, D.C., and New York City to the growing innovation hubs of Pittsburgh and Raleigh.

As these prognosticators weighed the tax incentives, current technology industry landscapes, and educational institutions offered by each city, one finalist emerged routinely in the pages of financial publications as a front runner:  Boston.

Yes, unassuming old Beantown is firmly a hub of data science, software development, artificial intelligence, and all those Silicon Valley-esque industries that print money like the Federal Reserve. The city, endowed with its world-class universities, cultural institutions, and accessible – yet slow – public transportation options, checks off every box for Amazon in its search for its HQ2. The Irish betting service Paddy Power even listed Boston back in January as the favorite to win, putting the odds at 3-1.

Landing this splashy, job-promising company that now dabbles in everything from bankrolling Hollywood films to storing data on the cloud is the sort of prize that Mayor Martin Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker would love to tout as a victory for the city and the state. Yet, on closer examination, what does winning Amazon mean? What does its addition do to help Boston rectify the major challenges that plague it and the wider metropolitan area? How would the introduction of the corporate behemoth Amazon into the Athens of America help the city deal with its increasing unaffordability, its grueling gridlock, and its vast economic and social inequality?

Though movies like Good Will Hunting have given Boston the aura of a city of middle-class working men and women, the increasing reality is a city marked by high levels of economic and social inequality. According to a recent Brookings Institute study, Boston has the greatest income inequality of any major American city, with household incomes of about $15,000 in the 20th percentile and about $265,000 in the 95th percentile. And this stark inequality between Boston’s haves and have-nots exhibits itself in its strikingly low levels of economic mobility. A recent study by two Harvard economists, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, found that Suffolk County is among the worst counties in America at helping those at the bottom climb the economic ladder.

Yes, Boston’s growing prosperity has brought vast development to previously neglected quarters of the city, like the Seaport and Fort Point. But it has also contributed to making Boston a more gilded city that is increasingly only affordable to those who work in white-collar industries like technology, finance, and pharmaceuticals. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,680 per month, which is only outpaced by rents in San Francisco and New York City.

With the growing number of jobs, sharp increases in population, and increasing number of commuters, traffic on Boston’s notorious streets have worsened. TomTom, the mapping and navigation company, ranked Boston as America’s 10th most traffic-congested city and ranked it ahead of the long commute-ridden, highway-infested cities of Atlanta, Houston, and San Diego.

And to get a better understanding of how Amazon would accentuate Boston’s major issues of inequality, unaffordability, and congestion, look no further than the site of Amazon’s mothership, Seattle. The city, once thought of as a Pacific Northwest outpost for creative types and Starbucks coffee, has indeed seen Amazon contribute to the development of previously downtrodden neighborhoods, increase the density of the city’s office space and living spaces, and flushed local government coffers with increased tax revenue.  However, Amazon’s rise as an employer of 40,000 Seattle-based workers and tenant of millions of square feet of office space has coincided with a dramatic increase in area homelessness, sapped historic neighborhoods of the vitality that gave birth to Nirvana and Foo Fighters, and created an unhealthy dependence upon which Seattle’s fortunes are tied to Amazon’s. The famed, late traveler Anthony Bourdain recently toured Seattle and found “tech industry workers … rapidly changing the DNA of the city, rewiring it to satisfy their own newly-empowered nerdy appetites.”Seattle has become a playground for society’s winners, those whose technical degrees and comfortability with computers has put them at the forefront of changes in the global economy. It has increased the status with which the city is regarded by politicians and economic chieftains.

For Boston, a city with an envious, diverse, and thriving economy, what is there to gain from adding a new corporate patron to the city’s ranks of economic heavyweights? Is it purely a prestige factor that civic leaders like Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker are fighting for when they dangle millions of dollars of tax incentives in front of Amazon? Courting a company that left Seattle awash in rising inequality, rising rents, and rising homelessness is a reckless act of aloof and high-minded political theater. It will not help Boston rectify its growing problem of becoming a domain strictly for the thriving wealthy and creative classes that populate the city’s universities, hospitals, and companies. The city is flush with profound prosperity but is rotting on a spiritual level in that its famed urban spaces are being walled off from the working class people who make Boston Boston. So if the status-obsessed duo of Walsh and Baker truly want to build a better Boston, it is time to put an end to the courtship of Amazon.