Memo to CEOs: My city is not a "brand"

Tell your mayor: Stop hawking your city as a commodity for corporate employees to luxuriate in

Published April 14, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)


Cities want Jeff Bezos in the worst way, and I mean that literally. The world's richest man is looking for a metropolis to host Amazon's second headquarters, which, in typical technobabble fashion, is to be christened “HQ2.” "The HQ2 Hunger Games have begun," wrote one commenter in CityLab, perhaps forgetting how the original Hunger Games ended. As another CityLab article pointed out, the benefits of corporation-courting are unclear:

[T]here is little evidence that such subsidies bring sustainable economic benefit to cities. Research suggests that firms receiving incentives are statistically no more likely to generate new jobs than similar firms that don’t. … In Wisconsin last year, lawmakers agreed to a $3 billion tax incentive package for technology manufacturer Foxconn—despite the fact that the state’s nonpartisan budget office concluded that the state won’t break even on the deal until at least 2043. ... Public funds generate far better—and more immediate—returns when they are prioritized for smaller, Main Street-scale economic development efforts.

In their quest to woo the online giant, municipal governments have fallen over each other to embarrass themselves: Metro Atlanta offered to build a new city named “Amazon.” Chicago proffered two billion dollars in tax breaks. New York even illuminated its skyline "Amazon orange" in tribute to High Lord Bezos.

Yet Amazon isn't the only target of civic wooing. In city hall after city hall, the needs of citizens are put on the back burner so mayors and their backers can entice billionaires. This is a new spin on an old con: American cities have a long history of building sports arenas for rich men. Detroit put its faith in the goodness of corporations, and look how that ended. In a column in USA Today, Ric Edelman addressed Bezos directly:

In one of the biggest public relations moves of this century, Amazon has set municipal hearts aflutter as they compete for a new $5 billion headquarters and the promise of 50,000 high-paying jobs. Twenty cities are finalists, but my advice — my plea — to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is this: Throw the list of finalists away and plant your HQ2 flag in a community that truly needs the economic transformation you are uniquely positioned to provide.

The marriage between plutocrats and cities has always been tenuous. Long ago, the wealthy had to take cities as they were, warts and all. There was nowhere else to do business. But in the age of tech, the balance of power has shifted. Open the Wall Street Journal any day of the week, and you'll see the distressing spectacle of American cities selling themselves short to giant companies. Even the priests of tech are skeptical – well, slightly. As Kerry Flynn wrote in Mashable:

Venture capitalist turned blockchain engineer Preethi Kasireddy published "Why I’m leaving Silicon Valley" on Medium a couple weeks ago. She's not giving up on the tech industry, but she's moving to Los Angeles. As for why she chose that city, diversity, weather, and L.A.'s own booming tech industry were all factors, she wrote.

… [Although not a techie, Jennifer] Rice writes that the kinds of people she met in San Francisco most days tended to be "homogeneous" — often they were engineers, venture capitalists, or entrepreneurs. Of course, the Bay Area has plenty of teachers, doctors, and accountants as well, though they're perhaps just a little more difficult to come by than in other cities.

In the hustle to attract tech bros, the great American cities are making themselves over into ghastly shadows of their former selves. As Edelman pointed out, the state of New Jersey and its largest city Newark (which has a 12 percent unemployment rate) are offering Bezos $7 billion in tax incentives: "Why don’t they just give $7 billion to all men, women and children living in poverty in Newark?" Edelman asks. Good question. Because the suffering of human beings is complicated. Newark is complicated. But selling the trendy, affordable Newark brand is easy. As CityLab noted, "Cities with brand-name value like New York and L.A., however, are made less appealing by high housing costs."

To that, I say: Stop it.

Stop selling cities as brands.

In our current system, cities feel they must hock themselves to billionaires. To do so, they have reduced themselves to the status of brands.

But cities are not brands. They are not playthings for tech bros, and not stages for the powerful. Citizens deserve more respect, and we ought to control our own destinies.


The problem with brands

The plutocrats of the Gilded Era believed in plunder of every kind. They didn't care about the environment, but they had a certain loyalty to their surroundings, and very specific notions about what that loyalty entailed. When Rockefeller or Carnegie built monuments and hospitals, they were indulging impulses that a medieval king would have recognized: This land, this town is part of me. I am great, and my city ought to be great. I am tied to this place; ergo, it reflects me. I can improve it by my presence. Even alligators understand the meaning of territory. The Victorian industrialist Henry Clay Frick was one of the greediest, most evil Americans to have ever lived, a true predator. He negligently drowned Johnstown and his goons murdered workers during the Homestead Strike. But the old monster left 150 acres of undeveloped park to Pittsburgh, and the Frick Collection of art became a museum. Place meant something to him, even if nothing else did.

Our own era upsets this apple cart. Cars made suburbs, and suburbs drained cities. Neighborhoods melted away. The cities got desperate. Beginning in 1970, municipal governments designed a new strategy. Rather than focus on the people who had stayed, the cities would compete to entice the so-called Creative Class to urban centers. And so cities, which had molded generations of Americans, and reflected common human aspirations, became beggars. That's how we get to the depressing spectacle of America's great cities dancing for Bezos, like dogs on hind legs begging for treats. Mr. Bezos, try brand New York. Try brand Chicago. Try brand Houston, brand Denver, or brand Austin. These cities want to be the new San Francisco, without considering what that would mean.

Cities are not brands, and cannot be valued as brands. Of all the great mysteries of modern life, the oddest is the universal delusion that everything can be sold. You might think the Kansas farm your family has tilled for generations is priceless. But according to AgWeb, the ground you've given your life to is priced $3,000 per acre, a 10.4 percent decline from 2015. Of course, this doctrine is nonsense. To paraphrase Napoleon, quality has a quantity all of its own.

The notion that something could be invaluable makes plutocrats profoundly uncomfortable. This makes sense: if you're an old-fashioned industrialist, it's easy to attach worth to what you do: this many cars, using that much steel and this much rubber. Tech is different. Increasingly, tech derives its value from intangibles — goods and services that have no physical existence: intellectual properties and patented ideas hemmed in by the fence of law.

Much of tech is immaterial. Which explains why so much of tech, and the rest of the modern economy, is obsessed with brand. A brand is literally nothing. That's why it's a brand. An object is an object. An idea is an idea, even if it doesn't have a physical location; it has certain properties, and a certain complexity to it. A good idea is a kind of story: Evolution is replication plus alteration plus selection. Democracy is ordinary people voting on what's best.

But a brand is not an idea. A brand is a name and a sign, and associated characteristics ... and that's it. The Nike swoosh isn't a complicated idea. The Nike brand is a cradle of emotional associations tied to a noun. Nothing more, nothing less. There's nothing to explain about it, nothing to understand. The first glance sees to the depth. Brands are built to be two-dimensional creatures, like animated fish painted on a cel. Deeper ideas would be harder to market -- deeper ideas demand context. Because they're so shallow, brands can fly anywhere, do anything, be pasted on every surface. Like the atoms of the cremated dead, brands are everywhere at once and nowhere at all. And it's why they're valueless. "So much depends," wrote William Carlos Williams, "upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens." I'd like to point out the order of priority here: When Williams describes value, he indicates location. So much of what is actually valuable in life depends on context. On where it is, and why it is there. My great-great-grandfather's pocket-watch has value to me because of what it is, and where it has been. Humans are contingent creatures, and the things that matter to us are contingent. Your parents first met on this date, at this location. The facts that bind us endow us with meaning. Our limits set us free.

Brands are movable property. Movable property is by definition transitory. Cities and countries and wonders aren't movable. The meaningful parts of life are not easily moved. I can't change where my parents met, and I can't change the date I first saw the Pantheon in Rome. Some things can't be shuffled around in a spreadsheet.


The civic brandocalypse

There's a grim logic at work. If cities are merely sets for the professional class to make products — if cities are playgrounds, and not communities; if they're brands unattached to anything — then the cosmopolitan guests can abuse cities however they want. They can do what tech bro John Keller did, and write a plaintive letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee:

I am writing today, to voice my concern and outrage over the increasing homeless and drug problem that the city is faced with. I’ve been living in SF for over three years, and without a doubt it is the worst it has ever been. Every day, on my way to, and from work, I see people sprawled across the sidewalk, tent cities, human feces, and the faces of addiction. The city is becoming a shanty town ... Worst of all, it is unsafe. What are you going to do to address this problem? The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.

In his long whine, Keller demonstrated what Quartz writer Holly Wood called “an incredible sense of bourgeois entitlement, reckless irony, and sloppy philosophy.” But the actions of America’s municipal governments suggest they take the Kellers of the world seriously.

That’s dangerous. A city for tech bros means that real human concerns will fade into the background. See, the cities have to be made pleasant for the “wealthy working people.” Once we grant that, well, what does social welfare matter? Who cares if the mass-transit works? How many dollars does your cultural legacy buy? Yes, by God, the cities must be made safe for brands … and the people who nurture the brands. If cities are merely consumable brands, then cities are free to bulldoze and condo and Panera-ify minority neighborhoods to their heart's content. In a Yelp thread titled "Tech Bros Killed San Francisco," user "Otto D." wrote this quintessentially modern lament:

Techies and their inflated salaries have destroyed what was a wonderful city. These are the people who wear backpacks on mass transit, import hookers and pay $4 for a slice of toast.

We owe it to our cities to treat them as more than disposable objects. There's an old medieval saying: City air makes you free. And in the old words lie new hope. The lovely fact about tech bros is that they burn out. The nice thing about brands is that they're so insubstantial: rolling stones that gather no moss. They can attract, but they accrue no weight, they belong to no one, and can provide no shelter. When was the last time a neighborhood Texaco took in a gay kid fleeing his homeland? When has DKNY opened its doors to a migrant family, the way Dallas has? People still weep for old Harlem; how many books get written about Quadraflex?

New York is not a brand. Chicago is not a brand. Phoenix and Seattle and Miami are not brands. They are brick-and-mortar distillations of human lives and desires. And despite all appearances to the contrary, the city and people of San Francisco are not a brand. The City of Saint Francis, whose streets remember when it was a mission and whose harbor welcomed the ships of China — San Francisco, which suffered cholera and fire and plague, which knew the Emperor Norton and Harvey Milk and the Summer of Love, will go on, long after the last tech company has moved on to some man-made garbage island in the mid-Pacific. The brands will vanish, and the cities will remain, splendid Babel and its towers rising still.

By Jason Rhode

Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. He has been published by Paste Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Comics Journal, and Monkeybicycle. He appeared on an April 2011 episode of Jeopardy, and one day he will command all the good lads in Eastcheap. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

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