NEW YORK — The animosity directed at Amazon and the legislators who have opened the velvet rope to the city has been fomenting for weeks, but on Wednesday it reached peak rage.
It was then that Amazon executives faced members of the City Council, a body that was locked out of the process of wooing the company here, as well as protesters whose numbers were large enough that the council chamber could not accommodate all of them.
Both officials and civilians wanted to know why Amazon needed billions of dollars in subsidies when it had so much money, why it was getting a helipad, and how it imagined it could be considered a good neighbor when the city’s public land use process had been bypassed.
Ever since the announcement was made last month that Amazon had chosen Queens for its second headquarters over Detroit or Pittsburgh or anywhere else that would have welcomed it with far less ambivalence, the move has served as a projection screen for a wide and emotionally charged set of apprehensions about corporate tyranny, displacement, inequality, democracy, unfairness, loss.
How much of the anger at Amazon and its enablers is justified? Those in favor of the deal have repeatedly argued that 25,000 new jobs in New York make all the compromises worth it. Even if unemployment in the metropolitan area is low, and the city has added tens of thousands of jobs in the technology sector in recent years, civic leaders, like hypochondriacs in perfectly good health, live in perpetual fear that those sorts of gains could easily evaporate.
Since the beginning of time, it would seem, Republicans have played out that fear in rhetoric about tax policy, insisting that unless local tax rates were kept low, companies and jobs would flee to other states and cities. In New York, that has not proven to be true. But deteriorating infrastructure could emerge as the real threat to job growth and retention.
These concerns are hardly irrational. In May, Alliance Bernstein, the prominent investment house, announced that it was moving its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee. Although the firm would retain a presence in Manhattan, close to 1,000 jobs would be lost to a place that has evolved in the past decade as a nexus of urban cool. Like so many revitalized cities around the country, Nashville has great food, great design, great style.
When Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the business advocacy group founded in part by David Rockefeller in the 1970s, heard what was happening, she organized a meeting with the company and a group of political figures to try and better understand what had motivated Alliance Bernstein to relocate.
Although there were several factors at play, the first grievance mentioned by the firm’s representatives, Wylde said, was that New York had gotten tough to live in: a company survey revealed that average commuting times for employees were reaching the 90-minute mark. “Then,” she said, “they listed all the other reasons.”
Last year, as it happened, the Partnership set out to study the dozens of foreign companies in its membership, talking to them about the attractions and obstacles of operating in New York. The resulting report noted that “in every interview conducted,” the condition of airports, subways, roads and trains was cited as a major challenge.
“The number one reason companies chose not to expand in New York,” Wylde told me, “was the condition of transportation infrastructure.” This is not a small thing. Foreign companies currently employ close to 300,000 New Yorkers and contribute 11 percent of the city’s total $761 billion economic output.
In the mind of the chief executive, inconvenience is vanished profit. The delays stemming from the failures of the R train or the incapacitations of suburban rail lines is money gone to the winds.
Two years ago, in anticipation of a New Jersey Transit strike, the Partnership calculated what lost time actually costs. Looking at all the data, it discovered that for every hour commuters are delayed, New York City employers would lose $5.9 million. The impact of catastrophic weather on ailing infrastructure amplifies these losses. Two years ago, Deanna Mulligan, chief executive of Guardian Life Insurance, noted that the shutdown of the tunnels connecting New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan for five days during Hurricane Sandy cost the company $40,000 an hour in lost wages and productivity.
So when does New York, with its cramped spaces and soaring housing prices that force people farther and farther away from Manhattan, making them even more beholden to unreliable means of getting to work, stop being worth it? When do certain businesses say, Enough, and invest in the idea that talent is mobile, that good pizza, in the 21st century, can be found anywhere? Amazon’s move to New York is a vote for the belief that the city, despite how generic it has come to seem in so many places, really is unlike anywhere else. Can that optimism survive?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.