Amazon’s aggressive, yet stealthy push into the Chicago metropolitan region has been speedy, secretive and subsidized. In this ever-expanding world, people like Howard Ray — who notice what’s happening before it happens, act on that information and demand to be recognized as human beings with political agency and not abstract extensions of a profit-and-loss statement — aren’t supposed to exist.
As WBEZ reported in 2020, when Amazon entered the south suburb of University Park, the developer of what at the time was being called Project Condor (appropriately named after a species of vulture) told village trustees that they had to “keep the identity of the company behind the project a secret, at least until the deal was sealed.
“Second, they had to promise more than $100 million in future tax revenues to help pay for it. And third, they had to ram through a vote on the deal to meet the project’s construction timeline, which put the first shovel in the ground just weeks later on April 1.”
I’m familiar with Amazon’s tendency to silently steamroll municipalities. In January 2020, I interviewed longtime Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico after news broke that Amazon was the tenant moving into a 623,000-square-foot warehouse facility on the site of the old Maywood Park racetrack in what was once unincorporated Cook County before Serpico annexed the property in 2018. That warehouse was completed about a year ago.
“In terms of Amazon, about several months ago it was mentioned that [the developer] was negotiating with the company, but Amazon has all these confidentiality agreements, so quite frankly, when it came to our attention it wasn’t really that long ago,” the mayor told me. “Maybe 60 to 90 days ago.”
The mayor acknowledged that there were no community meetings held with residents to address the distribution center’s potential impact on quality of life. There were no discussions with would-be workers about warehouse conditions or wages. Residents were supposed to look up, suddenly notice the Amazon logo on a building, applaud the company’s mere presence and report for duty.
I call this the ‘Voila! Now shut the f— up’ effect.
In the words of British novelist Christopher Priest, every great magic trick has three acts. In “The Pledge,” the magician “shows you something ordinary. … Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course … it probably isn’t.
“The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret … but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”
If Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s myopic founder, is the magician, Howard Ray is a one-man Penn & Teller.
Roughly a year ago, there were rumors that Amazon was looking to buy a 26-acre site in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park community.
The site was owned by Allied Metals, an alloy producer. Amazon would take the land and people’s tax money and their political agency and by the third act, turn all of that into thousands of jobs paying $16 an hour, property tax revenue, and more business development. The prestige.
But when Howard learned that Amazon had stealthily purchased property in his community and the company well into the second stage of its act, he rushed the stage and started asking questions.
How would the company be held accountable to its neighbors? Beyond the elusive promise of more jobs, how would people be treated once they were hired for them? Why wasn’t the company holding any public meetings to discuss its plans? Why didn’t any city officials or the alderwoman let residents know about such a massive investment until well after the monopoly company bought the land?
Eventually, Howard formed the West Humboldt Park Community Coalition. The organization held community meetings of its own, some of which were attended by Amazon representatives. They canvassed the area, circulating informational material and gathering residents’ opinions.
The overwhelming neighborhood consensus, Howard told me, is that residents don’t mind Amazon coming into town, but they have some demands. They want a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would at least nominally hold the company accountable and that would take into consideration the collateral effects and externalities of doing business. They’re pushing the company to do more robust community outreach, hire at least 60% of the hub’s workforce from the community and pay workers a $28.50 starting wage.
Regardless of whether or not one thinks these demands are realistic, it sounds like these community members want more than anything the power to force Amazon to recognize them as autonomous actors, as mature citizens responsible for their own lives and the lives of their neighbors — power that is vanishingly rare nowadays.
Howard also realized that Amazon’s planned warehouse, which is currently under construction, would be located inside of an Opportunity Zone, which means that the company would get a large tax break if it holds onto the newly constructed warehouse long enough. The Opportunity Zone program was pitched as a way to lure capital to distressed urban areas like the West Side.
If a property is held for at least 10 years, according to a Forbes contributor, the corporate “taxpayer can pay zero capital gains tax on the new investment […] I think that’s the real prize: if you hold your investment in some of these opportunity zones […] you essentially pay no tax on your returns, which could lead to a 30-40% increase in your annualized return. That’s what I want people to really understand: this isn’t a small tax benefit, it’s pretty massive.”
That may help explain the decision by Amazon, whose modus operandi is to aggressively eschew liability (for people, property, processes and products), to actually own the West Side property, instead of lease it from another owner, as it does in Melrose Park.
In his 2021 book, Only the Rich Can Play: How Washington Works in the New Gilded Age, Journalist David Wessel traces the genealogy of the Opportunity Zone to the mind of 30-something-year-old “Silicon Valley billionaire wunderkind” Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and Facebooks’s first president.
Parker spent about $11 million to lobby Democrats and Republicans in Washington D.C. before the proposal was “stealthily inserted in six pages of the 185-page Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, largely thanks to the determination of Sean Parker’s chief congressional ally, Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first Black man to be elected to the U.S. Senate from the South since Reconstruction.”
Parker is another magician, a master of “the prestige.” Here are millions of acres of blighted, undeveloped inner-city land (Manifest Destiny’s new frontier in certain respects), here is some rhetoric about public-private partnerships and socially responsible capitalism and helping the poor and the Blacks, here is the promise of jobs and future development and … Voila!
In Parker’s case, Wessel has rushed the stage to interrupt the trick. Wessel’s book opens with a scene at the Opportunity Zone Expo held May 2019 in Las Vegas.
“It’s clear why the OZ tax break unleashed a flurry of interest from the wealthy, investment funds, real estate developers, and conference organizers,” Wessel writes. “I’m here to witness tax-avoidance capitalism firsthand.”
Inside of the convention center, Wessel notices all kinds of people, “drawn together by the possibility of making money and reducing their taxes. But given that Opportunity Zones were sold as a way to steer investment toward left-behind communities, there are notable absences. I don’t come across, say, many heads of local economic-development groups or capital-starved entrepreneurs based in poor neighborhoods.”
On Monday, the Financial Times reported that Amazon had commissioned “an audit, led by former U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch, to look into ‘disparate racial impacts’ from its employment practices on its U.S. frontline workforce.”
The decision comes after “pressure from shareholders who had accused the company of putting a disproportionate number of workers of colour in harm’s way in its warehouses, where injury rates are higher than the industry average.”
Cue the pledge, turn and prestige. Voila!
The Financial Times report doesn’t mention that the audit decision also comes a few weeks after an historic election at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in New York, where workers voted to unionize.
Now, to crash the stage, I predict that, in Lynch’s report (as with former attorney general Eric Holder’s “Civil Rights Assessments” of Starbucks, conducted over the last several years) the workers — as self-determining adults with sufficient political power to counteract union-busting Amazon’s seeming omnipotence — will be hard to find.
In this world of vultures, average people with political power don’t exist.