The spatial impacts of Amazon

A review of a new book about Amazon highlights the geographic impact of the influential company:

Photo by Sergei Akulich on Pexels.com

In some of MacGillis’s stories, the connection to Amazon is so tenuous as to be almost indiscernible; the characters’ problems seem to arise more from larger forces, such as globalization, gentrification, and the opioid crisis, than from any one corporation’s influence. A young man from small-town Ohio—alienated by his experience in D.C., where he starts college—returns home and enters Democratic politics. After scoring a local success, he runs for Congress, determined that the party not write off his opioid-ravaged, Trump-supporting region, but he fails to drum up more than a couple of union endorsements. A gospel singer who became a cultural force in Seattle during the ’80s watches as her neighbors are pushed out of the city’s historically Black Central District one by one.

Local energies may have been sapped for many reasons, yet in the coastal cities that MacGillis visits, Amazon’s disproportionate ability to further enrich and empower already thriving places and workers is glaring. Familiar though they are, evocations of the six-figure salaries and amenities available to young Amazon programmers—a café catering to their dogs, meeting space in a giant replica of a bird’s nest—acquire new salience set against Torrez’s experience. And the sense of entitlement on display in the company’s search for a second headquarters site is breathtaking. Local officials across hard-knock America prostrate themselves for a chance to host it. In the end, Amazon chooses the suburbs of the nation’s capital—already one of the wealthiest areas in the country—and walks away having amassed a great deal of useful regional data provided by eager bidders who probably never stood a chance.

In the less glamorous pockets of the country—the rural areas and small cities where MacGillis has spent so much time as a reporter—Amazon’s role in making economic hardship more entrenched is no less stark. In El Paso, Texas, Amazon has aggressively marketed itself to the city government as a go-to source for office supplies—which has pushed local purveyors to open up online storefronts on Amazon; a large cut of their sales goes to the corporation. In York, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of the once-fashionable Bon-Ton department store has been made extinct by Amazon and the broader retail consolidation it represents. The crisis of unemployment that has ensued is one that Amazon exploits, finding able bodies for its warehouses in nearby towns.

On his home turf of Baltimore, MacGillis explores most intimately the ebbing of human fulfillment that has accompanied Amazon’s promise of high-speed customer service. He profiles Bill Bodani Jr., who spent most of his working life at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point complex, outside the city. In the early 2000s, a serious injury forced him to retire in his mid-50s, around the time that foreign competition and other factors pushed the company into bankruptcy. Eventually, the Sparrows Point plant shut down and Bodani’s monthly pension payment was cut from $3,000 to $1,600. Now 69 years old and back at work as a forklift driver in a 22-acre Amazon warehouse, he returns every day to the exact same piece of land. The peninsula has been rebranded—it’s called Tradepoint Atlantic now—and has become what MacGillis calls an “all-purpose logistics hub” that houses, among other facilities, an Amazon fulfillment center.

While Amazon is not the only major corporation that could claim to have a a large impact on so many places in the United States (think Walmart, McDonald’s, and a few others), it’s particular reach and impact might just be unique. With an ability to reach millions of customers in their homes, tech workers in a lot of locations, and fulfillment centers spread across the country, Amazon reaches across multiple sectors and job segments.

This means that its impact on particular places could be quite disparate. Take the Chicago region as an example. Like many places, Chicago wanted Amazon HQ#2. This would add to both office workers in downtown Chicago as well as many more in fulfillment centers around the region. Yet, Amazon’s locations received more money from some poorer suburbs.

Each of these Amazon locations, high-tech or not, has the potential to shape the character of communities. Consider the fate of places like Elwood, Illinois that rely on warehouses and distribution centers. Is an Amazon fulfillment center a good trade-off in the long run? Does the chase for a new headquarters or some higher-quality jobs in corporate offices encourage communities to offer tax breaks and more? What kind of local citizen is Amazon – does it participate in and contribute to local activities, do its buildings and its footprint positively contribute to civic life?

Amazon my be global but it is local for many communities. How it interacts with these numerous local contexts may help decide its long-term fate.

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