SEATTLE — I live in the city that hit the Amazon jackpot, now the biggest company town in the United States. Long before the mad dash to land the second headquarters for the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon found us. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by a future we never had any say over.
With the passing of Thursday’s deadline for final bids, it’s been strange to watch nearly every city in the United States pimp itself out for the right to become HQ2 — and us. Tax breaks. Free land. Champagne in the drinking fountains. Anything!
In this pageant for prosperity, the desperation is understandable. Amazon’s offer to create 50,000 high-paying jobs and invest $5 billion in your town is a once-in-a-century, destiny-shaping event.
Amazon is not mining coal or cooking chemicals or offering minimum wage to hapless “associates.” The new jobs will pay $100,000 or more in salary and benefits. In Seattle, Amazon employees are the kind of young, educated, mass-transit-taking, innovative types that municipal planners dream of.
So, if you’re lucky enough to land HQ2 — congrats! But be careful, all you urban suitors longing for a hip, creative class. You think you can shape Amazon? Not a chance. It will shape you. Well before Amazon disrupted books, music, television, furniture — everything — it disrupted Seattle.
At first, it was quirky in the Seattle way: Jeff Bezos, an oversize mailbox and his little online startup. His thing was books, remember? How quaint. How retro. Almost any book, delivered to your doorstep, cheap. But soon, publishers came to see Amazon as the evil empire, bringing chaos to an industry that hadn’t changed much since Herman Melville’s day.
The prosperity bomb, as it’s called around here, came when Amazon took over what had been a clutter of parking lots and car dealers near downtown, and decided to build a very urban campus. This neighborhood had been proposed as a grand central city park, our own Champs-Elysees, with land gifted by Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder. But voters rejected it. I still remember an architect friend telling me that cities should grow “organically,” not by design.
Cities used to be tied to geography: a river, a port, the lee side of a mountain range. Boeing grew up here, in part, because of its proximity to spruce timber used to make early airplanes. And then, water turned the industrial engines that helped to win World War II.
The new era dawned with Microsoft, after the local boy Bill Gates returned with a fledgling company. From then on, the mark of a successful city was one that could cluster well-educated people in a cool place. “The Smartest Americans Are Heading West” was the headline in the recent listing of the Bloomberg Brain Concentration Index. This pattern is likely to continue, as my colleagues at the Upshot calculated in picking Denver to win the Amazon sweepstakes.
At the bottom of the brain index was Muskegon, Michigan, a place I recently visited. I found the city lovely, with its lakeside setting, fine old houses and world-class museum. When I told a handful of Muskegonites about the problems in Seattle from the metastatic growth of Amazon, they were not sympathetic.
What comes with the title of being the fastest growing big city in the country, with having the nation’s hottest real estate market, is that the city no longer works for some people. For many others, the pace of change, not to mention the traffic, has been disorienting. The character of Seattle, a rain-loving communal shrug, has changed. Now we’re a city on amphetamines.
Amazon is secretive. And they haven’t been the best civic neighbor, late to the charity table. Yes, the company has poured $38 billion into the city’s economy. They have 40,000 employees here, who in turn attracted 50,000 other new jobs. They own or lease a fifth of all the class A office space.
But median home prices have doubled in five years, to $700,000. This is not a good thing in a place where teachers and cops used to be able to afford a house with a water view.
Our shiny new megalopolis has spawned the inevitable political backlash. If you think there’s nothing more annoying than a Marxist with a bullhorn extolling a failed 19th-century economic theory, put that person on your City Council. So Seattle’s council now includes a socialist, Kshama Sawant, who wants “the public” to take over Amazon ownership. Other council members have proposed a tax on jobs. Try that proposal in Detroit.
As a Seattle native, I miss the old city, the lack of pretense, and dinner parties that didn’t turn into discussions of real estate porn. But I’m happy that wages have risen faster here than anywhere else in the country. I like the fresh energy. To the next Amazon lottery winner I would say, enjoy the boom — but be careful what you wish for.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.