On September 7, 2017, Amazon sent out a press release detailing its plans for a new headquarters—HQ2. This new headquarters would be a “full equal to Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle” with an investment of over $5 billion.
Colorado, a place completely entranced with the project of urban development, naturally put in a bid. According to a Denver Post article, the bid was focused on the tech talent that already exists in Denver and the incentives that Amazon could thus gain from hiring locally.
Public reaction to the possibility of Amazon arriving in Denver is varied. Most people that have a media platform have fallen into one of two categories: Amazon is good because development is good, and Amazon is bad because development is bad.
The first argument even has national buzz. A New York Times article picked Denver as the best place for HQ2, and argued, “the city’s lifestyle and affordability, coupled with the supply of tech talent from nearby universities, has already helped build a thriving start-up scene in Denver… lots of big-city refugees have been moving there for this reason. Amazon would be smart to follow them.”
The second argument is summarized well by Seattle local Gregory Scruggs, who reported that since Amazon, housing in Seattle has become unaffordable, creating an increase in both commuters and houselessness. This effect is also noted by people who have described the working conditions at Amazon as, to put it mildly, subpar. Nichole Gracely said in The Guardian that “being homeless is better than working for Amazon.”
But what are Denver locals saying?
Asia Dorsey, who introduced herself as a futuristic, black, queer, business-cooperative- developing mermaid who grew up in the Five Points is the current owner of Five Points Fermentation Co. The Denverite, who can often be spotted with her puppy, Jasper, or chatting about biological alchemy and “the complete and utter transformation of our food system and thus our economy,” has both a personal and professional history with Denver development.
“I’ve seen my entire community desecrated and family separated by market forces controlled by upper-class African Americans in collusion with the white power structures in Denver—aka urban planning,” she said. “The gentrification of my neighborhood was 25 years in the making, and we were not included in the conversation but were treated as a byproduct, or simply an inconvenience, in the ‘development’ of Five Points.”
The irony is that the development of Denver means that her company might gain from a broader consumer base. And because the nature of her company is a workers cooperative, as they win, working class folks also win.
“Worker cooperatives become more of a viable option for transitioning into a new economy,” she said.
Obviously, Dorsey has a stake in this fight, and her proximity to the situation and tie to the success or failure of a development project make her more of an authority than traditional development experts, with a more sterile, third-person point of view.
Dorsey’s central argument is that, if done properly, Amazon HQ2 has the potential to assist poor, queer people of color. She argued that, “if we get ahead of the curve, we have the opportunity to use this as a benefit.”
In an economy that has created massive inequities due to structurally racist policies, Dorsey’s main priority is to get people paid. And that seems likely; the numbers support Dorsey’s claims that Amazon will bring not just jobs at Amazon, but also in food and service industries in and around Denver. In Seattle, Amazon brought in over 53,000 new indirect jobs.
Although low-income LGBTQ folks of color might have access to more jobs because of Amazon, the housing crisis that would be created from skyrocketing rents would displace the same people.
But Dorsey has thought of this as well. She argued that this displacement process is occurring even without Amazon.
“The difference is that if LGBTQ people of color from low-income neighborhoods can get a seat at the table to be lifted by the wave of development instead of crushed by it, everyone can win.”
This would be a radical shift from the way development projects take place in the status quo. Dorsey suggests that various provisions would need to be included in contracts with Amazon that would ensure food is locally sourced to spur Colorado rural economies, affordable housing is preemptively designed and protected, and low-income folks are given opportunities through organizations like the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute before Amazon arrives to create their own business.
Many activists who oppose gentrification and development take a position that requires development to stop, but it is theoretically and practically impossible to stop growth under capitalism.
Dorsey gave the example of food trucks providing food for Amazon employees.
“Thousands of new employees need something to eat, and we make sure that there are taco trucks on every corner, putting money into the hands of artisan cooks from gentrifying and marginalized communities like Elyria Swansea,” she said.
“Not only that, but what if all the trucks were connected as a taco truck cooperative? Who wins then? I actually think the radical community should get behind the move with a very clear legal framework.”
This is the crux of the argument: if development can include marginalized folks in a way that is productive instead of harmful, development can be good. If not, there will be (and have been) devastating consequences.
Denver is already seeing the deeply negative effects of development. The Denver Post wrote that the median income in Five Points doubled between 2000 and 2015, and that Five Points had already changed so much by 2013 that the neighborhood didn’t qualify as at risk for gentrification. The Denver Post correctly posits that these would be good statistics except they are thanks to “a mass exodus of the poor” where “residents are pushed out by gentrification to new pockets of poverty developing elsewhere.”
While wealthy white folks with access to vast resources move into central neighborhoods, people of color who have lived in these places for generations are forced into suburbs with longer commutes as their communities are fractured.
But different LGBTQ people will be affected by the Amazon move differently. It is safe to assume that Denver is home to an economic range of LGBTQ individuals, so the impact Amazon could have on their lives is also quite varied. Wealthier LGBTQ individuals have an economic incentive to attempt a more traditional development plan with Amazon because maintaining a struggling working class is a foundational pillar of wealth accumulation.
On the other hand, low-income LGBTQ folks could prosper profoundly from a development strategy that seeks to support the most marginalized in our community instead of lining the pockets of the rich.
“We must recognize that queerness doesn’t follow along class lines,” Dorsey said. “There will be many queer folks who don’t care about poor people. Do queer people see themselves as a part of a social group looking to push forward its own progression, or are we too divided amongst race and class lines to have the energy to care for one another? I care.”
Is it possible to separate development from its neoliberal framework to ensure the prosperity of everyone in the community?
Until now, the answer to this question has seemed to be a resounding “no.” Developers have moved into neighborhoods, fragmenting communities and destroying culture in search of capital. However, with community leaders like Asia Dorsey and community-centered frameworks of development, a different future could be possible.
It is still unclear whether Amazon will choose Denver for their HQ2. The possibility has brought up extremely important conversations that Denver, and the Denver LGBTQ community, need to be having about the role of development in our city.
“We know that the queer people who are the most vulnerable are poor, and specifically, black,” Dorsey said. “The intersection of racism, heterosexism, and poverty creates a vortex of suffering and beauty and creativity. Let us not forget where the vast majority of ‘queer’ culture originated. Stonewall was a hop, skip, and a leap from the neighborhoods where Paris burned.”