So, the pitch has been made.
Amazon, come hither.
I know I’m far from the only one who looked at our all-out, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink courting of the mega corporation Thursday at the Barnes Foundation with a little embarrassment. We do come on strong. A billion-dollar tax break in a bow? You got it. The fawning of everyone who’s ever done business here or held office? Sure. No problem.
Our case is strong, too.
For weeks, my colleagues have been laying out the merits – our historical significance, our transit and ready land, our growth and potential for more, our indomitable character.
And others have offered reasons why Amazon should find a different landing spot for its second home – it could broaden our already immense gap between rich and poor. It could make an affordable city Bay Area-expensive. It could help the new arrivals at the expense of the people who have been trying to make it here for so long without the billion-dollar breaks.
“It’s like a little village here,” my friend Fergus Carey told me when I first arrived here 15 years ago. That’s a sentiment that made me first fall in love with this town – and still shapes the way I feel about it. You may know Fergie from his shock of white hair, his bike festooned with bells, and the homey bars he opened that have been fixtures in the city’s arts and culture scene for decades.
When I think about Amazon, I think about what’s been happening to the Irishman’s eponymous bar on Sansom Street, where they’re literally building a luxury tower around his spot. For so long Fergie’s stood like a beacon on that once-desolate street.
He rolls with it. And he won’t budge.
But hey – if any newbies upstairs decide they want a Guinness or a star turn on the live-band karaoke stage, everyone’s welcome.
The village endures.
Still, the Ferg, like many, is of two minds about our potential corporate takeover.
“Will it be a little village, or a really expensive little village nobody could afford?” the sage barman asked. “Everything has a cost.”
That applies to Amazon, too, I thought walking up the street to the Reading Terminal. I was going to see the Meat Man. Like Fergie and me, Nick “Meat Man” Macri is a transplant. He bought in 15 years ago from Toronto, first for school, now with a butcher shop in Reading Terminal. The Terminal, of course, rightfully makes it into every single pitch for this city.
And on Friday, as the market was holding a press conference to celebrate its 125th anniversary and talk about its future, the Meat Man was building his own – moving his growing business, La Divisa Meats, to a new spot in the market. A nice one, by the window.
The Meat Man was feeling contemplative.
“Great. Come to our city with your big company,” he said. “But don’t support just that big company. Support small businesses. Become part of a neighborhood. Support the city from the bottom up, not the other way around. And don’t put gum on my counter.”
The Meat Man hates that. They should have had the Meat Man write the ad copy.
He’s right: Look, I’d be thrilled if Amazon came here. So would Amazon. This city makes you fall in love with it, like it or not.
But we’re not suckers here. There are strings attached. Big ones, when it’s a billion bucks.
If Amazon comes here, it wins our culture, our restaurants, our neighborhoods, our beauty, and our weirdness and grit. If it gets the Navy Yard, which for the last several years I have used as a personal running track, I will cede that ground for the good of the city.
“Relax, Mike, you’ll always be able to run at the Navy Yard,” Prema Katari Gupta, a senior vice president of Navy Yard Planning & Development – a Connecticut transplant herself – assured me Friday. (I could almost hear her eyes roll over the phone.)
But if our number comes up, Amazon is going to have to make a commitment to dig in. It’ll get more than just the tourist brochures. It’ll get our struggling school system, our deeply entrenched poverty, an opioid crisis like almost nowhere else. We could use that Amazon cachet. We could also use the help. The city must demand it.
So here’s my pitch: I know every city is pushing its good bars and good food and its cast of characters and story to tell. But is there another city in the country that combines our historical importance, indomitable character, and a transformation built on our own organic, gritty, can-do attitude?
Amazon could do good works here, if it wanted. There’s unquestionable value in that.
So I hope to see you around, Amazonians. Just don’t gum up our counters.