When Amazon went on a search for a second headquarters, it was motivated in part by looking for a big tax break:
When Elon Musk secured $1.3 billion from Nevada in 2014 to open a gigantic battery plant, Jeff Bezos noticed. In meetings, the Amazon.com Inc. chief expressed envy for how Musk had pitted five Western states against one another in a bidding war for thousands of manufacturing jobs; he wondered why Amazon was okay with accepting comparatively trifling incentives. It was a theme Bezos returned to often, according to four people privy to his thinking. Then in 2017, an Amazon executive sent around a congratulatory email lauding his team for landing $40 million in government incentives to build a $1.5 billion air hub near Cincinnati. The paltry sum irked Bezos, the people say, and made him even more determined to try something new.
And so, when Amazon launched a bakeoff for a second headquarters in September 2017, the company made plain that it was looking for government handouts in exchange for a pledge to invest $5 billion and hire 50,000 people. The splashy reality-television-style contest generated breathless media coverage, attracted fawning bids from 238 cities across North America and ended with Amazon deciding to split the so-called HQ2 between New York and Virginia. Then progressive politicians attacked the $3 billion in incentives offered by New York, and Bezos pulled out. Amazon was widely ridiculed for its failure to court New York politicians. To understand why that happened, Bloomberg interviewed 12 people familiar with Amazon’s effort. Their story, outlined here for the first time, depicts a team that became the victim of its own hubris. Bezos’s frustration with what he deemed meager government largess prompted executives to scrap lessons learned through the years in favor of an unapologetic appeal for tax breaks and other incentives.
This news came just as we finished introducing the concept of growth machines in my urban sociology class. In this theory, coalitions of political and business leaders drive development decisions with profits and growth in mind. In this particular case, Amazon looked to cut a deal with the city that was willing to give them the most. If Amazon chose their city, political and business leaders could claim they won because of all the new jobs plus the prestige of an Amazon headquarters while Amazon would profit from massive tax breaks. As I noted then, let the race to the bottom begin.
The biggest problem with all of this is not that there is competition between locations for headquarters and business activity. This has gone on for a long time and for a variety of organizations; read about the bids to land the United Nations headquarters. The issue is that the large tax breaks mean that some of the benefits of a business moving to a community are offset by tax breaks. And who benefits more in the end? The corporate leaders, not the community as a whole.
I can imagine a television game show format with all of this: a corporation says they want to expand and help a community or region along the way. Bidders/communities bring their pitch to the show, showcasing the best of their community (and the money). The corporation narrows it down and in the end names the one winner. Everyone else loses out (outside of making a public pitch regarding the best aspects of their community). It could be very entertaining.
The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:
Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.
It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.
The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)
As for heaven itself:
Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”
We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”
The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:
Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.
As 2019 comes to a close, here are the five most visited pages on Legally Sociable for the year:
- The exterior vs. the interior of the Brady Bunch house and architecture in TV and movies. This post continues to be popular; here are three possible reasons: there are dedicated fans of the Brady Bunch, this home is particularly iconic, and there is relatively little scholarly work about depictions of suburban homes on television (though this post helped inspire two publications of mine: one on suburban TV shows and one on the fictional McMansions of the Soprano family).
- A new term: the “accordion family.” Household arrangements continue to change in the United States and this is one of the changes that emerged out of the economic troubles of the late 2000s: more twenty-somethings living at home.
- The highest post from 2019 on this list: Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One. This overview of two local zoning concerns, one a proposal to rezone property along a major road through a town and one a proposal to build a five story apartment building in a suburban downtown, had a Part Two with more sociological analysis that was nowhere near as popular.
- Responding to “The Disturbing History of Suburbia.” I add some scholarly sources and discussion to this video which is a good starting point to thinking about the large role race and ethnicity played in the creation and maintenance of American suburbs. It is hard to escape the importance of race in understanding the American suburbs.
- Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing). There are few songs even hinting at these topics and Twenty One Pilots are popular.
Of the top posts, three involve reactions to popular culture (the Brady Bunch, Adam Ruins Everything, and a song from Twenty One Pilots), one is about a sociological concept, and three invoked sociological reaction in two areas of my research interest (suburbs on television and suburban development).
On to a new year of sociological commentary.
Vacationing in southern California a few years back, we decided to go on some tours of Hollywood studios. After doing these tours, I started looking more into the different backlots for different studios. Then it hit me: I have seen these settings at least dozens of times. In commercials, television shows, and films. Over and over again. Here are a few of these backlot settings I cannot forget:
1. Colonial Street on the Universal Studios lot. There are so many houses here that have been used. Plus it served as Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. (And also an Ace Hardware advertisement.)
2. The city streets on the Warner Bros. lot, particularly the New York Street set. The street corner featuring a storefront with a subway entrance right in front that is used all the time.
3. Wall Street at the Universal Studios lot. The key is seeing the large building with columns at the end of a shot down a long street.
Once you know what these settings look like, it is easy to recognize them.
Amidst the 25th anniversary of the start of Friends, numerous commentators pointed out the iconic Central Perk coffee shop and hinted at how it helped make the show. Architectural Digest called it an “iconic TV interior.”
But, this raises a chicken and egg problem for television shows: do the settings help make shows popular or critically acclaimed or do people celebrate the settings because other parts of the show are good?
In the case of Friends, much is made of its setting in New York. With six young adults living in apartments, Friends helped make urban living look fun. Would the show have worked if it had been set in San Francisco or Chicago or less dense locations? More specifically, does the coffee shop truly make it feel like New York or more homey?
Or, on the other hand, did the show really not need to involve New York because what really mattered were the interesting relationships between the six young adults plus the situations they got themselves into. If the characters and writing are good enough, could the show succeed even with a lousy or less interesting setting?
For the record, I saw the Central Perk set with my own eyes on a tour of a Hollywood backlot some years ago.
Seeing iconic settings like this is an interesting experience: they are both recognizable and not. Because you can see all that is right around the set but hidden on TV (such as the lights, the fake facades) the scenes seem very sterile. On the other hand, it looks like a very familiar place.
Architectural Digest has a list of the “26 most Iconic TV Interiors” and it includes at least two McMansions:
The Sopranos memorialized early-2000s New Jersey in all its gritty glory. Perhaps most memorable among fans was the Soprano family kitchen, with its light wood palette, where Tony was often seen in his robe, rummaging for cold cuts. But the show’s production designer Bob Shaw has said he found the office of Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi the most interesting, because it was round. For a mobster confronting his own mind, there was nowhere to hide…
The rich and beautiful but down-to-earth Cohen family was the family every O.C. fan wished would adopt them—but only Ryan was so lucky! The Italianate McMansion in Newport Beach, California, was actually built on a soundstage—so, that breathtaking ocean view from Ryan’s poolhouse? That was a photo backdrop made by production designer Thomas Fichter, who was also responsible for all the “weather” you ever saw on the show.
I have a lot to say about the Soprano McMansions here.
The home from The O.C. has some similarities to the Soprano’s McMansion: it is in the suburbs and was built (and aired) in the same time period. Yet, the inhabitants of Orange County on the show faced more conventional suburban problems – teenagers stuck in a world of largely successful adults with big houses – compared to the twist of a gangster family living in a well-kept New Jersey McMansion.
Two other thoughts on this list:
-There are at least a few outright mansions on here, including the impressive setting for Downtown Abbey.
-The brief descriptions do not provide that many insights as the list contains mostly very popular shows. Did the interesting setting help make the shows popular or did the settings become interesting because the shows took off? The list does not really have any failed shows though I imagine some short-lived television shows had some very interesting interiors.
To follow up on yesterday’s post regarding the importance of the English manor to Downton Abbey, some more on the popularity of the home:
When the Downton Abbey producers first approached Highclere in 2009, the family faced a near £12m repair bill, with urgent work priced at £1.8m. But by 2012 the Downton effect had begun to take the pressure off. Lord Carnarvon said then: “It was just after the banking crisis and it was gloom in all directions. We had been doing corporate functions, but it all became pretty sparse after that. Then Downton came along and it became a major tourist attraction.”
Visitor numbers doubled, to 1,200 a day, as Downton Abbey, scripted by Julian Fellowes, came to be screened around the world after becoming a hit in the UK in 2010 and then in the US. It is now broadcast in 250 countries…
VisitBritain’s director, Patricia Yates, said: “The links between tourism, films and TV are potent ones.” She added that period dramas have also raised the popularity of regions outside of London.
Keeping an older house maintained and running is an expensive task. Tourism spurred by television or film can help some locations stay afloat even as dozens of other homes languish. More broadly, when I studied the primary home on The Sopranos, I ran into stories of Sopranos tours and merchandise that utilized the show’s New Jersey locations. A Simpsons home outside Las Vegas has attracted visitors even as the home has remained as a private residence. Fixer Upper helped bring people to Waco, Texas. Some shows do indeed seem to spur tourism.
On the other hand, visiting the locations and homes of other shows would prove disappointing. Many television homes, such as the residence of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch, do not match the actual home even if the exterior is recognizable. Numerous shows use establishing shots of real locations and then the filming takes place on soundstages and backlots. For example, a tour of New York City based on Friends makes little sense since most of the action took place inside fictional locations (though the 25th anniversary pop-up location in New York City is sure to attract visitors). On a tour of the Warner Brothers backlot, I saw Wisteria Lane and part of Stars Hollow; in both cases, knowing that this was not a real place changed how I later perceived the shows.
In a world where cities and places chase tourists, television shows that use that location and become popular can be a boon because there is little a community has to do with it. What exactly those tourists expect to get – perhaps a little closer to the on-screen characters? to drink in the mystique of the entertainment industry? – is another matter entirely.