The potential loss of the Amazon headquarters would be more akin to a long-term disaster. During the 20th century, the city lost its two main economic underpinnings: its manufacturing base and its role as the busiest seaport on earth. In 1955, for example, about a million people worked in New York City’s factories, and in its crowded harbor, tramp steamers, ocean liners and tugboats struggled to avoid one another. New York was the leading industrial city in the world.
And yet, by 1980, a quarter-century later, the major job centers in the five boroughs had essentially collapsed. In 1900, New York had 90 breweries and was the beer capital of the nation. But by 1976, the last brewery in the city was gone, and Milwaukee and St. Louis were competing for beer supremacy. Similarly, in 1950, New York’s 300,000 textile workers made most of the women’s clothes sold in the United States. The city had no serious rival. But by 2017, only about 20,000 such workers remained.
New York’s job losses were not only blue-collar. During the 1970s, the city experienced an exodus of Fortune 500 corporations. Dozens of them moved their headquarters and took their executives with them. Some went to suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey, but many more decamped for Atlanta, Dallas or Houston. The impact on the city was dramatic. Not only did workers laid off from those companies lose their jobs, but their spouses and children suffered as well. Many of them, as demographic statistics reveal, had to move to other states to make a living. Their departure was hidden by the fact that they were often replaced by millions of newcomers from other countries, but those immigrants could not immediately compensate for all those lost jobs.
The region now faces a calamity almost as bad as anything that has happened in the past. The loss of Amazon would cost 25,000 jobs directly, and those workers would support up to 82,000 more indirect jobs. The subsidies New York has offered to Amazon would have been given to any company promising so many jobs. And Amazon is expected to pay more than $27 billion in taxes over the next 25 years. Amazon will also build four million square feet of office space in Queens, providing billions more in construction spending.
More important, a new Amazon headquarters on the East River would signal that the future of this metropolis is as great as its past.