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Long Live the People’s Urbanism

Today should be a day of celebration. Amazon is leaving New York, and we just dealt a blow to urban neoliberalism.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos presents the company's first smartphone on June 18, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder / Getty

Amazon ditching its plans for a heavily-subsidized corporate complex in Queens could mark a new beginning for New York, one that could bring about a much-needed paradigm shift in planning and urban economic development.

For too long, powerful corporations and politicians have promoted policies and projects that asked the working majority to sacrifice our meager benefits and social services for the supposed greater good of the economy. Today, with the demise of Amazon’s New York City headquarters, dissenting voices are heard clearly.

The movement that beat Amazon — made up of Queens workers and tenants, and lead largely by women of color — did not just take on one particular corporation, but also asked bigger questions about our society, such as: Who is this economy for? Who gets to decide what our futures will be? What will it mean for our children and grandchildren, who are already in debt before they are even born?

For years, our leaders gave us one set of answers: the economy is first and foremost for the wealthy, who might share their riches with the rest of us; developers get to shape the city, with ‘consultation’ and subsidies from the people; and your children will benefit from the shared prosperity the rich somehow summon.

Obviously, this approach to urban development is distasteful to large numbers of New Yorkers. People in this city have always fought back against this logic, but all too often our movements have been conditioned to accept compromise as the best outcome — to prematurely negotiate, or to fight for a better version of a bad plan rather than fight such proposals outright. But when New York’s political class announced that it had struck a deal behind closed doors to gentrify the world’s most diverse urban area by further enriching the world’s richest man, people stood up and fought what often felt like an impossible battle. They forged a proudly oppositional movement, which sought not to negotiate the parameters of their own displacement but to fight head on the forces driving the cost of living to absurd heights.

The inevitability of Amazon’s arrival, however, had formed a strong common sense. Many acknowledged that it was a crummy deal – including, at times, the plan’s own architects – but urged New Yorkers to resign themselves to its eventuality. Just two days ago, the New York Times published an editorial by historian Kenneth Jackson that granted the subsidies’ absurdity, but suggested still that the city capitulate, stating: “this is how the game is played.” A few weeks earlier, Governor Cuomo, in an interview with Brian Lehrer, said that in a perfect world a company should not have states bidding against one another, but that: “We pray for the perfect, we live in the real.”

In other words, the deal may stink but our hands are tied. Mayor de Blasio acknowledged the obscenity of tax breaks for Bezos, but insisted that the deal was democratic because its key negotiators — the mayor and governor — were democratically elected. The message to New Yorkers was clear: sit down, there is no alternative.

And then, on Valentine’s Day, New Yorkers proved them all wrong. They burst the ideological bubble the establishment was floating, and showed that they will not accept the trickle-down, supply-side urban economics under the vague and misleading banner of “progressive” policy. This demonstrates that we can — and we must — do more than “play the game,” “pray for the perfect,” and follow the leaders.

February 14, 2019 should forever be recalled as a loud rebuttal to the hegemony of neoliberal urbanism. Perhaps it will be also remembered as the start of a new era of people’s urbanism.

It won’t be easy and we’ll need to write a new roadmap. There will be plenty of voices mourning the loss of the Amazon deal, and decrying New Yorkers as prisoners of inertia. They will say we are afraid of change, but they are wrong: it was Amazon’s backers who defended a status quo in which land use policy is meant to perpetually boost corporate profits and inflate property values; Amazon’s opponents were the ones calling for change, not only to this plan but to our entire way of understanding the point of cities, of planning, and of economies.

Amid rampant displacement, mounting homelessness, union busting, and cultural erasure, it is beyond time for an urban planning overhaul. Today, as the horrible deal becomes history, our voices are firm: governments must stop treating our cities and homes as commodities, put people before profits, and radically democratize the way we plan our urban futures.