Few discussions are as uninteresting and useless as those concerning Amazon's impact on Seattle, its culture, and its housing market. Such conversations are motivated only by the mistaken assumption that there are lots of choices or alternatives to the kinds of cities we can have. But there are in fact only two types of cities that are possible in a society that, as John Maynard Keynes put it, is based on "fostering, encouraging, and protecting the money-motives of individuals." The two types of cities were recently described by Seattle Times's Jon Talton in the post "What it takes to really kill a city." There is the city that is dying, like Dayton, Ohio; or one that is thriving, like Seattle. And the reason for the death or life of a city in a market economy is found in the health of its premier companies.
Why did Dayton, Ohio go into decline?
According to Talton, the leading reason is the departure of NCR Corporation in 2009. Did the city have much a choice in this? It appears it did not. NCR laid off workers in 1980s when it changed its business model, then in the 1990s, it crashed after a bad merger with AT&T, and finally it sold its properties and moved to suburban Atlanta. As a consequence, Dayton doesn't have traffic problems like Seattle, a city that has and is attracting a good number of premier companies.
At the end of the post, Talton asks the only question that's meaningful in the context (a market economy) of what builds and destroys a city: Do you really want to live in a city that is metaphorically killed by Amazon or a city that is really killed by not having an Amazon? Talton, who is obviously addressing an affluent and mostly white audience (poor people have no choice or say in such matters), concludes: "Other cities [like Dayton] would kill to be 'killed' by hosting Amazon’s headquarters." And that is it. That is how we destroy or build our cities—not on rock an' roll or on splendid views or the weather or even the bones of some saint or prophet but on companies. And as the companies grow, our cities grow with them.
At this point, it would be helpful to quote a passage in T.S. Eliot's poem "Choruses from The Rock":
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer?
“We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
If a stranger asked this question about Seattle, you should have no problem in providing him or her with an answer. This is the material state of things, which is why it's so useless to talk about what Amazon has done or isn't doing, and also equally useless to say older Seattle was so much better than the new one. All that we see happening around us today (the growth, the rise in home values, the increasing flows of foreign capital) was present in and pressed hard upon our city's past. What has changed is just the scale. There has been no structural transformation that's dislocated the past from the present. And without a profound transformation at the level of the base, which would mean a radical experiment with a kind of city we have never known or lived in, we are stuck with either a dying Dayton or a thriving 206.