Philly Needs Local Government Worthy of the City in Our Amazon HQ2 Bid

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Philadelphia officially submitted its bid for Amazon's second headquarters yesterday, and as part of the promotions, the City released a nicely-designed website with a video showcasing Philly's strengths.



It's inspiring stuff that speaks to the talent, creativity and resolve of Philly's residents, business community, and non-profit leaders, and it's hard not to feel a twinge of pride watching it. 

As Jim Saksa says, the Amazon bid process required the city to craft a new story about ourselves that makes a clean break with Negadelphia, and the video is a really well-crafted expression of that.

As Philadelphia tries to rewrite its upbeat economic narrative over the slowly fading story of decades-long decline, like a palimpsest, the pallid imagery of a down-on-its-luck kind of place lingers, blurring outsiders’ perceptions of the city.

One of the things that all cities struggle with are old narratives,” said Alan Greenberger, an architecture professor at Drexel and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. “Our old narrative was that this was a very tough place to do business and that didn’t come from nowhere.” [...]

Philadelphia’s new story is about a town on the rebound, with the nation’s fastest growing millennial population; a welcoming, diverse city full of immigrants; a dense, walkable city with a booming downtown and the room to grow; a well-educated city anchored by some of the nation’s biggest and brightest academic and medical institutions and buoyed by the second-fastest growing tech sector in the nation; a city with all the nightlife, culture, bars, restaurants, parks, hidden gems and big attractions as any other in the nation, but at the fraction of the cost." 

One thing that's curiously absent from this narrative, and the video, is any mention of the quality of local governance or city services besides parks and transit. None of the testimonials talk about how easy it is to work with the city, or how well-run or innovative our local government is.

That's because the non-governmental sector really is where all the dynamism is happening in Philly, while the public sector bureaucracy and many City Councilmembers remain temperamentally skeptical of all this change and growth, are still technologically inept in important ways, and are more often found standing in the way of civil society or policy innovation than nurturing it. Posi-delphia is winning the culture war, but Negadelphia is still winning a lot of elections.

Philadelphia has one of the more compelling bids for Amazon's second headquarters (if Amazon is actually looking at the East Coast), and Philadelphians aren't the only ones who think so. Moody's recently ranked Philly as the 3rd best site for Amazon (after Austin and Atlanta) citing our high-quality transportation infrastructure, proximity to world-class universities, and copious available land next to high-value locations like Schuylkill Yards and the Navy Yard. 

We could potentially have a real shot at this, but it's all based on the strength of legacy assets (elite universities, extensive regional rail system, tons of park land, walkable street grid and narrow streets for biking) that we've inherited from previous generations—not anything in particular that the city has initiated recently.

We're "lucky," in a sense, to have lots of vacant land left next to high-quality transportation assets like 30th Street Station that could house Amazon's HQ2, but this is primarily a consequence of the city being so disinvested for so long, and being relatively late to the party during the national re-urbanization trend. 

The point is that it's not really anything city government has done recently to make Philly a great candidate, and as we consider the city's new narrative, we also need to start electing people with the capacity to think big about the city's future, and will leave future generations with the next round of legacy assets and institutions that will continue pushing Philadelphia forward.

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  • commented 2017-10-21 10:20:04 -0400
    I’m surprised and disappointed in Philly 3.0s excitement about the Amazon HQ debacle.

    Amazon’s growing economic and political power should terrify anyone concerned with the civic health of our democracy. As economic inequality grows, so does the power of the unaccountable corporations increase. Amazon is one of the most powerful and most egregious. Even if the larger issues of accountability and inequality weren’t significant to you, Amazon’s terrible track record with their treatment of workers certainly should cause you to rethink your embrace of it moving to Philly. https://gizmodo.com/reminder-amazon-treats-its-employees-like-shit-1792642652

    We need a sustainable economic policy that puts the people of this city first; one that starts with increasing the standard of living for those who are currently suffering the most under our current regime. As advocates for a stronger Philly for ALL Philadelphians and not just the 1% I hope your organization will reconsider articles like this one.
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