Amazon in Queens: A Tale of Two Cultures Told in Three Postcards

It began during the holidays — Amazon’s courting of the residents of my Queens, New York neighborhood.

The goldenrod and black color scheme of the conspicuously oversize (8 x 10) postcard wedged into my mailbox was unmistakably Amazon’s.

“Amazon is investing in Long Island City,” the banner read, with an image of the Queensboro Bridge, which locals call the 59th Street Bridge.

Built in 1909, the iconic Beaux-Arts span arcs elegantly over the East River, connecting Queens to Manhattan. It’s popularly known as the backdrop of the epic Spider-Man movie battle scene (Spidey versus the villainous Green Goblin).

Standing in the mail room of my building in January, I thought, “This is smart — personal outreach in an easy-to-read, old-school format.” The artist’s rendering of the bridge was a nice touch too.

The flip side of the postcard:

“HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM YOUR FUTURE NEIGHBORS AT AMAZON

The announcement of our new headquarters in Long Island City was the beginning of what we hope will be a long and mutually beneficial partnership between New Yorkers and Amazon.”

The list outlining Amazon’s plans was impressive:

  • 25,000 new jobs over ten years
  • Career training focused on technology for residents
  • Tens of thousands of indirect jobs in the forms of construction, building services, and hospitality
  • Over $27 billion in state and local tax revenue
  • Educational support (Amazon pledged to donate real estate for the building of a new public school for 600 students)

The overarching message of Amazon’s January postcard was spot-on in terms of clearly communicating their intentions. They wanted to be good neighbors. They aimed to improve the quality of life for residents. They intended to be collaborative partners: “As we move forward, we pledge to be your partner, and to listen, learn, and work together. As Long Island City thrives, so will our employees, customers, and our partnership with New York.”

The other thing I noted about the January postcard: it provided a website address for the New York City Council, where residents could share their thoughts about the Amazon project.

So, what happened? How did it go so wrong?

The news this past November that Amazon had chosen Long Island City as one of its two new HQ2 locations (along with Arlington, Virginia) reverberated around the community in various ways.

As a researcher, I was both personally and professionally curious about the sentiment regarding Amazon’s impending arrival in my neighborhood of Astoria, which borders Long Island City (while the U.S. Postal Service says I live in Astoria, I live in Long Island City according to ConEdison — it’s just a matter of crossing the street).

As I’ve explained to some of my colleagues, Long Island City is not out on the tip of far-flung Long Island — parts of LIC are closer to Manhattan than Brooklyn is — just one subway stop from Manhattan, in fact. Hop on the N or W train at Queensboro Plaza in Queens and in five minutes, you’re on Lexington Avenue and 59th Street.

Founded in 1683, the roots of Queens are deep. Queens is the biggest of New York City’s five boroughs and has the most diverse demographics of any county in the U.S. A total of 138 languages are spoken in the borough, making it the living, breathing epitome of a global village.

For the past four months I’ve listened to conversations around my neighborhood (some may say “eavesdropped,” but in my own defense, the standard volume of conversation in most establishments borders on what I would call bullhorn, so it’s not as if I always had a choice).

I listened while hanging out at the counter at Astoria Bagels waiting on my toasted everything bagel with butter. I listened to passionate debates that took place over plates of tzatziki and pita bread at the Taverna Kyclades, where the waiters gab with the regulars in Greek. I listened while standing on line at the bank and the dry cleaner, and as my mailman, Louie, discussed Amazon with Nick, the Super of our building. Everyone was talking about Amazon.

Despite Amazon’s strategy of launching an old-school approach of outreach to my neighborhood, an even older-school (and more powerful, as it turns out) form of communication was also in play: word-of-mouth via social networks.

As I listened around my neighborhood, I noticed that the conversations hit on nearly all the issues articulated in Amazon’s January postcard, but with particular focus and sometimes dubious takes on two: the 25,000 jobs and the state and local taxes.

Here’s what I heard from my Queens neighbors:

The 25,000 (non-union) jobs

The promised 25,000 jobs were an estimate of the number of employment opportunities that would be created by Amazon over the span of a decade or so.

Of those 25,000 jobs, at, say 2,500 hires a year, less than one-third of that number (700 or so ) would happen in the first year. And the implications related to those jobs are myriad and complex.

Ask anyone in my neighborhood and you’re likely to hear this skepticism: no way those 700 six-figure jobs would have gone to any of the approximately 6,000 residents of Queensbridge House (which is described by Wikipedia as “the largest public housing development in the Western Hemisphere”). The average resident has a median annual income of $15,500.

Queensbridge House is within walking distance of the proposed Amazon HQ2 site — but the consensus based on the conversations I observed was that those jobs would go to talent from outside the area.

And the perception seemed to be that this new talent would not only take those job opportunities from current residents, they would further burden an already overwhelmed infrastructure and subway system (if you’ve ever attempted to get on the N, W, or F trains during rush hour, you know of what I speak).

It’s widely documented that an influx of well-compensated tech workers drives up housing costs — look at the 50% increase in rent since 2010 in Silicon Valley.

Long Island City’s flourishing arts community and revitalized waterfront has already resulted in a growing affordable housing crisis, pricing-out working-class families who have lived in LIC for generations. The arrival of thousands of Amazonians would likely ensure that any of those families still hanging on would eventually be permanently pushed out.

To top it off — the site of Amazon’s planned HQ2 in LIC had been previously earmarked for the development of 1,500 units of affordable housing for low income New Yorkers.

“The fact that massive public subsidies are helping eliminate affordable housing is just the latest reason this bad deal needs to be torn up and thrown away,” State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who represents Long Island City, told Politico back in November.

One more point about those 25,000 jobs: As anti-Amazon community activists — to include a few very vocal elected officials — reminded residents at rallies and town hall meetings and in editorials in local newspapers — Amazon is opposed to unionization. And Amazon representatives publicly confirmed in a city council meeting as recently as last week that their policy is to oppose organizing attempts by employees.

Another interesting element to all of this — in December, Amazon employees at a newly opened warehouse in Staten Island went public with their campaign to unionize, asking in part for improved working conditions.

But not all NYC unions were in alignment with opposing the arrival of Amazon. At least one union (the building service employees union) has an agreement in place with Amazon and had backed the LIC plans.

Meanwhile back in Queens, New York City council member Jimmy Van Bramer — who also received a postcard from Amazon, which he displayed in a video filmed in his kitchen and posted to Instagram — said: “Let’s be clear, the only reason they are mailing this out and spending this money is because our voices of opposition have been heard and felt. This is about money. This is about power.”

The billions in state and local tax concessions

What I started noticing early-on as I listened around the neighborhood is that people didn’t seem to talk about or understand that Queens stood to benefit over time to the tune of $27 billion by some estimates in state and local tax revenue.

The focus of conversation and debate has been so much about outrage over the tax incentive carrots dangled in front of Amazon that this point was largely missed — the agreement struck with the city and state specified that Amazon would be eligible for the $3 billion in tax concessions only after they made good on the investments they promised to make in the community (the jobs, the training, the new public school, etc.).

What plenty of people also seemed to miss is that the city ultimately stood to collect more tax revenue than it would concede in tax subsidies. But the prevalent perception was simply that the Amazon deal was wholly one-sided in their favor.

Another realization I had as I overheard/eavesdropped on conversations around Queens: people erroneously believed that the much talked about $3 billion in tax incentives offered to Amazon was an existing bucket of cash that was to be diverted away from the community and handed directly to Jeff Bezos. People believed this because they heard it from friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

Comments I noted: “Think of what we could for the community with that three billion dollars!” and “How much money does one person need?” and “Amazon pays zero taxes, but we are paying them three billion dollars to come and revitalize an area that doesn’t need revitalizing? I don’t get it.”

It was clear that the two sides were not really listening to one another.

The three postcards from Amazon that landed in my Queens mailbox over several weeks

The second postcard to arrive from Amazon seemed to respond to some of these concerns — to a point. This one was a serene blue, with the message, “Delivering 25,000 new jobs for Queens.” This postcard was even bigger than the first one — 8½ x 13 — and the message was concise:

  • HQ2 will mean 25,000 new jobs, yes over 10 years, but we will hire people with different levels of education from across all five boroughs of New York City.
  • Amazon will create technology and training programs to help underrepresented communities be better equipped for Amazon and other employment opportunities, including internships and work-based learning.
  • Amazon will infuse money into the Queens economy in the form of thousands of indirect jobs.
  • Small businesses will benefit — more than half the items sold on Amazon are from small and medium-sized business and Amazon Web Services is helping hundreds of thousands of startups launch and scale their businesses quickly and with minimal cost. In addition, the 25,000 new Amazon employees working in Long Island City will frequent small businesses, helping them grow and hire.

The website address on the second postcard, Amazon.com/NewYorkCity, connected to a page filled with colorful photographs and information on Amazon’s plans for Long Island City, Arlington, and Nashville.

“Investing in the U.S.” the page announces, followed by “Since 2011, Amazon has invested over $160 billion in the U.S., including infrastructure and compensation to our employees — $53 billion in 2017 alone.” Three clickable links lead to information on Amazon in Long Island City, Amazon in Arlington, and Amazon in Nashville.

One other notable feature on the postcard was this boldface two-line footer:

Call State Senator Mike Gianaris: 718–728–0960.

Tell him to support the project.

This last part — the “call your senator” tactic — struck me as mildly ominous.

Hmm, I thought. Things must not be going well.

As it turns out, they weren’t.

Sen. Gianaris took exception to postcard number two and responded by launching his ownpostcard campaign — with a twist.

The Gianaris rebuttal came in the form of a mailer that duplicated Amazon’s serene blue postcard, but calling out all the points he disagreed with marked-up and graffitied in red ink.

Gianaris’s postcard countered Amazon’s “call your state senator” suggestion with “Call Jeff Bezos,” complete with a phone number registered to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

Amazon’s statement announcing the collapse of the deal last week said in part that it had become clear that local elected officials simply would not work with them.

Local elected officials disputed this, asserting that Amazon refused to work with them on the union issue.

“It’s clear to me that Amazon chose to walk away because it did not want to deal with our calls for workers’ rights and labor neutrality,” Van Bramer wrote in a social media posting.

What are the implications of Amazon’s exit? Is this the end for New York City’s aspiration to become an East Coast tech hub? Absolutely not.

Both Google and Apple have significant and expanding presence in New York City — just two months ago Google unveiled plans to invest $1 billion on the construction of a new campus in Manhattan’s rapidly revitalizing Hudson Yards district. Google plans to hire approximately 7,000 new employees, effectively doubling the size of its current NYC workforce.

Also in December, Apple, which already employees 1,000 people in New York City, announced plans to add hundreds more jobs.

The nuances of the ill-fated Amazon deal will no doubt be taught in business schools for years to come. But in the short-term, the immediate lessons are fairly clear: culture and local politics were drivers of what did (and didn’t) happen. There can be no underestimation of the power and influence of both for any organization looking to expand geographically; even when all the due diligence has been done, nothing is ever completely certain — until it is.

That Amazon.com/NewYorkCity address is still live, it still leads to the “Investing in the U.S.” page. But the three clickable city links are now two.

In hindsight, this was about many things, mostly in my view, it was about the collision of Seattle-based Amazon culture and New York City’s culture — a tale of two cultures, if you will. And as the age-old business adage goes: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Lorrie Lykins is Vice President of Research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp.com). Follow her on Twitter @shesuite

Writer, editor, researcher, recovering professor & journalist, lover of words, dogs, stationers, coffee, chocolate, and cheese.

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