I imagine it was late one evening last October when Jeff Bezos in comfy pajamas, whisky in hand, stood at his kitchen island. Just one more quick look. He opened his laptop, logged into aHarmony, eager to see any new emails. Hm, Houston. He scanned the executive summary, just like the other hundreds he’d read that day, looking for the right words, the right feel in his gut for his second headquarters’ home. “Houston and Amazon are kindred spirits, and together, we can change the world.” He grinned and furrowed his brow. Hadn’t he just seen a news clip last week of Houstonians’ yards still full of trash piles from Harvey? That was some hurricane. He logged out, shut his laptop, tired but pleased by the pursuit of his city suitors. He took another drink and shook his head. Don’t they know I’ve already changed the world?
It’s hard to put yourself out there. You think you’re a catch with your witty bio, clever moniker, fun photographs and carefully crafted emails and then – nothing.
New York City, 2008
Through the barrage of ridiculous emails, I thought I had a hopeful date with a great-looking 40-something dad, profile photos of him in suits like he had just walked out of Ermenegildo, of him post-work drinking with his finance buddies, of him brunching with friends at The Boathouse. Over sexy lounge music at the Hotel Gansevoort with martini in hand, I sat on the black leather couch with my date, who didn’t look remotely close to the pictures in his profile, and earnestly tried to stay straight-faced as he shared his daughter’s love for the von Trapp singers. He sang to me the complete puppet show song “Lonely Goatherd.” Come on, you know it, it’s on your playlist, sing along now – high on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.
But at least we had gotten to a first date. I pulled a Bezos and never replied to:
LongIslandCitydude: Hi, there, Moe! Since I don’t know your name (and LonestarGirl101 is a bit of a mouthful), I’ve taken the liberty of giving you a nickname: Moe. I hope you like it (the runner-up was Mad Dog, but somehow Moe seemed a bit more feminine).
JustWakingUp: OK, so I’d like to say I’m open to all kinds of artistic expression, but I went to a performance by the Martha Graham Ensemble last year and couldn’t escape the thought that people just aren’t supposed to move that way, unless they’re having a seizure or something, but even then… not so much. I thought it was disturbing in a way. Did I totally miss the point, or was that the point? Maybe you can clue me in???
RussellRuzzle: That’s cool you can take dance and put it into words. I use my puzzle solving skills as a conversation piece, usually taking a cube everywhere I go. I can solve the puzzle in less than 40 turns average, and I do it a different way each time.
I think I turned my profile off at that point, but not before I had been on countless dates with profile identity crises. “Are you 5’10”?” I’d ask as I barely had to lift my head to meet his eyes, 5’2” if I was in heels. I’d often not recognize my dates at the bar, having to ask “Are you John? Robert? Sean?” for there’d be less hair, more weight and older faces. Men had their own complaints – women were always thinner, prettier, younger-looking in their photos, made them wonder what else were we hiding from them. “Out a lot, huh?” a man asked me, doubting the profile I had painted of myself as clearly the most out-and-about fun woman in New York City. Profile accuracy had some wiggle room for both sexes.
How did New York City’s aHarmony profile read? Was its best feature its affordable housing? Philadelphia’s? I’d agree if it described itself as a great walkable, livable city. Did Austin highlight its major airport? What about Newark? Was their best feature another city? That’s a New Yorker’s dream, to leave The City every morning via a New Jersey Transit train. Maybe Newark’s $7 billion offer in tax incentives caught Bezos’ eye. These cities, along with Los Angeles and Chicago, made the top 20 cut for Amazon’s second headquarters. Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, did not.
So what is Amazon really looking for in its next relationship?
From its RFP, everything. The best location, the best incentives, a highly educated labor pool for the 50,000 estimated jobs, strong universities, great mass transit and airports, high quality of life. Their looking-for list concludes with, “Amazon may select one or more proposals and negotiate with the parties submitting such proposals before making an award decision, or it may select no proposals and enter into no agreement.” We may like twenty of you, some of you or none of you.
It is more than a little icky that the richest person in the world – in the world – requested from cities, whose governments and agencies are already strapped to provide for its citizens, to package themselves like a utopian glitter snow globe. Short on glitter and heavy on mud and debris, by Amazon’s October 19th deadline and barely two months after Hurricane Harvey had most of Houston underwater, the city was uploading profile photos of itself – handsome, slender and 5’10,” wealthy, with a full-head-of-hair list of assurances, benefits and incentives. While the full proposal remains confidential, several hundred pages of related documents were released. Some excerpts from the executive summary:
“Houston is a can-do city that focuses on getting results, not credit. We think big and then we do it. . . . Why Houston? Houston is diverse . . . Houston offers a unique convergence of industries ripe for disruption . . . Houston is home to top STEM and computer software talent . . . Houston and Texas offer a great business climate . . . Houston offers an incredible quality of life that attracts talent . . . Site Solution – Houston proposes to partner with Amazon to establish its HQ2 in the ‘Innovation Corridor’ of central Houston . . . Innovation Corridor North Site – 800 Bell, located in Downtown Houston, the former Humble Oil Building . . . This location offers proximity to a world-class multi-modal transit system and quality of life amenities, including luxury hotels, acres of outdoor spaces, an award-winning Theater District and three professional sports teams.”
I grinned and furrowed my brow. This 4-mile stretch from the Medical Center to University of Houston Downtown coined the “Innovation Corridor” is what the city likes to do – name things for what yet doesn’t exist. Like Downtown’s “Shopping District.” Draw a dotted line around three businesses – Forever XXI, a destination grocery store and a pop-up boutique, and presto, a Shopping District is created.
Maybe someone at Amazon read the same article I had from the 2017-18 winter issue of Downtown, a quarterly magazine published by Houston’s Downtown District, titled “The Downtown of the Future is (almost) Here.” It highlighted the City’s Plan Downtown, a vision for Houston by 2036, its bicentennial. From a section “Maximizing Quality of Life” the author wrote, “. . . So many of Downtown’s city blocks are monopolized by big, uninteresting buildings–office towers with street-level lobbies and non-human-scale architecture, monolithic parking garages and other structures that are dead outside of office hours.”
I stood at the top of my building’s parking garage last week, a Hitchcock-ian scene as hundreds of chirping grackles perched on car roofs and garage wall ledges, hopped between cars and swarmed overhead. I frowned and furrowed my brow noticing hundreds more perched along the top of the new and taller parking garage to my north – One Market Square Garage swallowing almost the whole block. I’d bet with such an alpha address that an adjacent tower is in the works, offering Market Square Park view. The new parking garage’s neighbor to its south? A new surface parking lot spanning the whole block, replacing the demolished 106-year-old Houston Chronicle building. The new garage’s neighbor to its west? An old parking garage. And all of it just a dotted line away from the Historic District.
Downtown Houston, are you 5’10” or are you 5’2”? Incredible quality of life or dead outside of office hours? Luxury hotels and acres of outdoor spaces or city blocks monopolized by big, uninteresting buildings and monolithic parking garages?
Bezos might have been sitting in his office late last October, contemplating how to tell over 200 cities that they’re just not good enough for his top 20 list, that a new relationship would not be in their future. Maybe just say nothing? But what about Houston? They’ve really been through it. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow as he filled in the subject line – It’s not me, it’s you.
For more from Amy Pearl in Table For One
To connect with Amy Pearl