Amazon Meets the Two New Yorks
I have a message for Jeff Bezos and Amazon as they prepare to add HQ1.5 to the mail-stops for the Long Island City branch of the U.S. Postal Service: Other places you’ve been aren’t New York. Sometimes, even New York isn’t New York. If you’re not from around here, you don’t know what I mean, so let me set you straight. There’s New York, and then there’s New York. In one New York, you’re considered a New Yorker if you were born and raised within a fifteen mile radius of Rockefeller Center, give or take a few hundred yards. Which means if you lived your entire life in Paterson, New Jersey or Scarsdale in Westchester County, you’re a New Yorker. Or at least one kind of New Yorker. If you grew up in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, you’re a little more hardcore than those suburban spawn. If you grew up on the island of Manhattan, your family was either very rich or very poor. Either way, you were very lucky. This New York is the one everybody in the country loves to hate. It’s a fast-talking, fast-walking, fast-thinking bunch. Its people come from every corner of the globe and it’s a tough crowd.
The other New York is the rest of the place. It’s a sprawling thing, covering a lot of ground. It’s the Empire State, after all, and the center of international commerce not because of all the banks and corporations headquartered within the Tri-State Area, but because of geography. The shape of the state makes it suitable for all occasions. Its borders include five other states, two Great Lakes, an ocean and another country. The Hudson River, Mohawk River and Erie Canal connect New York Harbor to the upper Midwest of the country, by way of Lake Erie. New York is at the beginning of nearly every business transaction and the likely landing spot for every final payment at the end. New York is the easiest way in or out, no matter how difficult it may seem from the outside. That’s the way empires are. But local citizens in the state’s outer reaches couldn’t be more different if they resided in different galaxies.
My daughter attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. The city is situated at the northern tip of the state along Lake Champlain, across from Vermont, and possesses a New England vibe due to the proximity effect. More importantly, it’s a twenty minute drive to the Canadian border. Or from it, since the city is more like a giant retail outlet targeting our northern neighbors. The highway signs are bilingual, English and French, all in the interest of international mercantilism. Imagine the uproar if the lower part of the state did the same in Spanish. It’s just a fact that no one ever talks about building a wall to keep out French-Canadians. Being a college town helps raise Plattsburgh’s regional IQ a bit, but the presence of an institution of higher learning doesn’t always guarantee a similar result, even in New York.
I spent a brief time attending Saint Bonaventure University in the western end of New York. Situated in the Allegheny River Valley (the river marks the rear of the school’s property, interrupted by a rail-freight line right-of-way), the school lay between the town of Allegheny and the slightly more urban city of Olean, fifty miles south of Buffalo and ten miles north of the Pennsylvania border. A number of students in my day came from eastern and southeastern parts of the state (many of them, like me, from Long Island), but more came from within a fifty mile radius of the school, creating a mix of backgrounds. The problems that occurred from clashing cultures were more off-campus than on. It may have been mostly normal adult annoyance with brash college kids, but a difference in accents didn’t help. The people from southwestern New York are the northern cousins to Appalachians through the Allegheny Range of Western Pennsylvania, and they sounded like it, with a touch of Midwest vowel drag. After all, it’s a short ride to Ohio. In spots, it was a scene from the movie Deliverance. The local folk, whom every urbane college kid in the world refers to as Townies, were decidedly different from the people I grew up around, from the colloquial to the political to the practical. And yet, they were New Yorkers as well, rifle racks on their pickup trucks notwithstanding.
New York is an agricultural state. It doesn’t get the props it should for possessing that particular skill set, but nearly a quarter of the land in the state is still devoted to farming. It is second in the entire country in apple production and third in dairy. There used to be more farms in the southeastern part of the state, but as the Tri-State region’s population kept increasing, the lands closest to the big city grew more valuable. Even though the percentage of farmland keeps shrinking, agriculture in New York is still impactful nationally. And it’s not just milk and cider. While vineyards in both the Finger Lakes region and Long Island have reached a level good enough to appear on some fancy restaurant wine lists, New York had been known for its domestic champagne from the Taylor winery since the 1950’s.
So, pop a cork off some vintage New York bubbly when you move in, Jeff, because we were always bigger than any one company or idea. We were a big deal when Chicago was a fishing hole and LA was in Mexico. We were a big deal when the army and navy of George III of England occupied our city during the War for Independence. The King didn’t think an order of occupation for Boston or Philadelphia would end the Revolution, because those places didn’t matter enough. New York was the big deal then and still is now. Are you kidding? This is the Empire State. The Erie Canal is still as relevant a commercial byway as ever, even without the mules. Sure we have our share of rubes, but our rubes are a class above what you’re used to dealing with. Even our homeless population is impressively astute. Maybe some of what we have will rub off on your company. Or, in the end, maybe we’ll just send you packing to one of the other ends of the state.