Amazon wants to build a second headquarters, presumably in some part of the country to balance its megapresence in Seattle, where it was founded. So, predictably, cities are lining up to bring Amazon home. Rhode Island will submit a bid. Commenters are saying Rhode Island is bound to fail.
But Rhode Island can win if it understands the value of its chief allure, and structures its proposal to take advantage of that allure and the difficulty other cities will certainly have in matching it.
The website Strong Towns has an essay called “What Can I Do To Make You Love Me?” by Charles Marohn, linked from Greater City Providence, and was sent me by former Rhode Islander Lee Juskalian, who has lived in California for 23 years. Marohn, taking the now conventional view that the usual subsidy sweepstakes are bad for cities, writes:
What should be astounding is how desperate our cities are. How weak and fragile they appear, yet how normal that seems to everyone. It’s hard to blame America’s cities for lining up to compete for Amazon’s love and affection; they desperately need it.
Marohn starts out by emphasizing his daughters’ intelligence as the allure they bring, as young girls, to the competition for good marriage partners. This makes sense. If he were to emphasize their beauty he would run into a buzzsaw of criticism. But Providence is not a young girl, it is an old city, and it should structure its allure with that fact very firmly in mind.
Rhode Island should focus its proposal on Providence because while the state as a whole offers much beauty, including other beautiful cities and towns in addition to its natural beauty, Providence offers a unique quality of civic beauty for a biggish city.
Look at the photograph, above, which shows the Seattle that Amazon workers see when they step out the front door of its headquarters. It reflects certain urbanistic merits but as a place it sucks. Sterile, glassy, uncongenial, uncomfortable. Not Providence. Providence and almost no other city of medium or larger size can offer a like degree of beauty. Charleston, S.C., is perhaps the only exception, and it hasn’t the same sort of major vintage downtown that Providence has. Most cities screwed themselves with urban renewal half a century ago. Not Providence. Boston comes as close as any large city to Providence but its remaining beautiful areas are, shall we say, taken. It has botched its latest major innovation district.
But while Providence has considerable beauty it does not know how to protect it, to grow it, or to market it. It is good at preserving lovely old buildings but not at protecting and improving their settings. Its current development projects don’t strengthen but weaken its brand. The city would put itself in a far better spot for the Amazon HQ2 competition if it were to announce now a policy of designing new buildings so as to reinforce and indeed build upon its brand of historical beauty.
This is not, as some would claim, looking backward to the past. No, it is looking forward to the future. It is to use the past as a model for moving into the future, a model abandoned by almost every other city. Cities in America and around the world did this for centuries, and succeeded both aesthetically and in matters of utility. Providence should promote itself as the leader in rediscovering that same urbanistic groove.
It is not just the beauty thing to do but the smart thing to do. Sense and sensibility. A savvy proposal from Governor Raimondo’s office would be bold. Explain the unique advantage Providence has to offer. Furthermore, to show how serious it is, Raimondo should declare that Amazon would be welcome here only if it joins in strengthening the natural brand of the city and the state. She should insist that Amazon design its new headquarters in some form of new traditional architecture. If Amazon makes its decision based on the conventional criteria, toking the conventional wisdom, Providence and Rhode Island will indeed lose – and be better off for it. But if Amazon thinks out-of-the-box and groks such criteria as are explained above, the company will also prove that it truly is something different. Amazon might actually prefer a bold city to one of the desperadoes that will come a-courtin’.
Beauty and intelligence are two sides of the same coin. Together they can help the city, the state and the world’s largest internet retailer grow – both economically and in beauty. But that won’t happen unless the city and state open their own minds to new ideas.