Nikil Saval at n+1:
Most city dwellers, it turns out, live lives of quiet desperation for Amazon. What was happening to Philadelphia disclosed the emptiness not just of this city, but of what people all over the country had learned to think cities were good for. The value of the Amazon contest is that it has laid bare a fundamental contradiction of contemporary urban life. Amazon appealed to cities—cannily, it must be said—to narrate themselves: what makes them unique, such that Amazon should locate there? The result was that all cities ended up putting forward the same, boring virtues and “legacy assets”: some parks, some universities, some available land, some tax breaks, some restaurants. Each city, it turned out, was indistinguishable from every other city: “thirty-six hours . . . in the same beer garden, museum, music venue, and ‘High Line’-type urban park.” By the same token, all cities were forced to realize their basic inadequacy: that ultimately, all their tireless work to cultivate their urbanity amounted to nothing if they did not have Amazon.
Amazon has bankrupted the ideology it claimed to appeal to: the ideology of “urbanism.” Since the early 20th century at least, critics, reformers, and architects from Daniel Burnham to Ebenezer Howard to Lewis Mumford have tried to solve the “problem” of the city. The solutions that came into being—threading the city with highways and clearing “slums”—lacked their idealism, damaging the city and city planning with it. The upheavals of urban renewal and the cataclysms of the urban crisis gave birth to the idea that cities were on the verge of extinction; the best way to save them was simultaneously to trumpet their inherent virtues and adopt itsy-bitsy policies to improve their basic livability. Against the pummeling, wrecking-ball visions of Robert Moses, Ed Bacon, and Justin Herman, a superficial reading of Jane Jacobs held that the network of urban eyes and the ballet of street life made cities what they were. (Her idea that cities ought to accommodate a diversity of industries and classes did not enter the discussion.) Under the reign of urbanism, cities, effects of a mercantile and then capitalist economy, became fetish objects: one had to love cities, constantly praise them, and find new ways of adoring them.