George Jetson on the Unemployment Line?

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Hardy Green is the author of two books, including the forthcoming The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy (Basic Books, fall 2010).

In southern Iran along the shore of the Persian Gulf, a vast industrial area is under construction.  The complex known as the Pars Special Energy/Economic Zone (PSEEZ) surrounds the old fishing village of Asalouyeh, and when completed it will include twenty-eight natural-gas refineries, twenty-five petrochemical installations, plus numerous warehouses and a mix of light and heavy industry.  Up to 60,000 workers are employed there now, largely in construction.

PSEEZ is what’s commonly known as a company town.  Its inhabitants are all in the employ of one outfit, Iran’s state oil company, which is developing the site as a joint venture with such foreign oil giants as France-based Total, Russia’s Gazprom, and the China National Petroleum Corporation.

Deindustrialization has finished off many such places both in the United States and in other lands, and yet many remain.  At Morenci, Arizona, one of the world’s largest open-pit copper mines owned by mining giant Freeport McMoRan has reopened after being idled last year due to volatile demand.  In good times, that mine and its related works occupy up to four thousand employees.  In Gary, Indiana, U.S. Steel’s considerably diminished works still has an annual capacity of 7.5 million tons of steel and employs up to seven thousand people. The entire city was created by the steel company at the turn of the twentieth century, although it has of course long since transcended its company-town roots.  And in Jamshedpur, a city of 1.1 million people in eastern India, Tata Steel Ltd. operates the country’s largest iron and steel works, employing nearly seventeen thousand people.  Tata planned and built the city in the 1920s as a model community.

Although some of these communities may be unfamiliar to readers, their extractive-industry and steel-making activities are far from exotic.  And though exact circumstances vary, it has not been unusual in such places for the hometown company to own the entire community outright and to control everything from police and hospitals to educational institutions.  Jamshedpur, for example, has no elected government—Tata provides all administration and services for the city.  Morenci, Arizona, too—with its 1,132 company-owned worker houses, 20-room Morenci Hotel, and Mercantile Co. general store—is wholly controlled by Freeport McMoRan.

Such settlements are likely to continue to exist so long as the world relies on ores and petroleum-based products.  But do these places represent the future of the company town?

In fact, there are many scenarios for the company town of the future.

As the American economy has shifted toward services, leisure industries, and tourism, a number of older company towns have joined the transition.  Such companies need not surrender their historic mission:  Hershey, Pennsylvania, for instance, continues to house productive facilities making Hershey Kisses and other chocolate treats even as its Disneyland-like HersheyPark draws three million annual visitors to test their hearts on roller-coaster upgrades like “Mini-Himalaya” and “Starship America.”  Kohler, Wisconsin retains its faucets-and-plumbing-fixtures plant, while also becoming home to a surprising range of tourist attractions:  the American Club resort hotel, four championship golf courses, the Kohler Waters Spa, and a spate of gourmet food-and-wine weekend fetes.  Corning, New York contains the headquarters, research facilities, and some factories of glassmaker Corning Inc., but the town also houses numerous attractions including the world-class Corning Museum of Glass, where visitors view displays of art-glass, glass-blowing demonstrations, and even make their own vitreous souvenirs.  The town is also home to the tourist-friendly Gaffer District, featuring a range of restaurants and open-air concerts.

Even older towns that have lost their traditional industries have found a way to glean tourist bucks.  Lowell, Massachusetts, established in the 1820s and a functioning city of textile mills into the 1950s, is today home to the Lowell National Historical Park, the American Textile History Museum, the New England Quilt Museum, and the Center for Lowell History—all appealing to thousands of history-buff tourists and students of the U.S. industrial past.  Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington were sites of key facilities that helped build atomic bombs used in World War II.  Both places are now National Historic Landmarks where visitors can examine “atom smashers” and nuclear reactors while listening to park service lectures on how the bomb materials were made.

As the U.S. Baby Boomer population ages, it’s not difficult to imagine other one-time company towns transforming themselves into attractions for intellectually active oldsters in search of something more stimulating than a trip to the mall or golf links.  It’s hard to imagine—but could GM’s abandoned assembly plants at Flint North (Michigan) be reborn as historical theme parks?

High tech is, of course, perceived as the future of the American economy, if not that of the world.  And many of high-tech’s shrines, from the Bell Labs office park built in the 1950s near Summit, New Jersey to today’s Googleplex in Mountain View, California, have arguably moved the company town indoors.  Located on a park-like 250-acre campus far removed from New York City’s plague of urban noise and dirt, the Bell Labs facility combined modernist aesthetics with such creature comforts as a solarium and employee lounges.  Updating and extending that model, the Googleplex provides that company’s free-spirited employees with no-cost meals (Indian or Latin American if you like), haircuts, laundry service, exercise facilities, massages, and even nap rooms.  Why would one ever leave—or quit working?

But as the age of the automobile recedes, suburban sprawl may also recede and the leafy office park may come to seem like a quaint relic, the twenty-first century’s version of the Rust Belt.

A separate Google facility illustrates a very different future for the company town.  Four years back, near The Dalles, Oregon, a small town of twelve thousand people, Google began building a huge data center known as Project 02 to help it respond to the ever-growing number of Internet searches.  The area’s main appeal:  inexpensive hydroelectric power from The Dalles Dam and an underutilized fiber-optic cable network.  The company worked quietly, secretly purchasing thirty acres of land adjacent to the Columbia River and requiring in-the-know local officials to sign confidentiality agreements.  (Nonetheless, local land prices soared by 40 percent.)  Google went on to build three mammoth, low-slung buildings to house tens of thousands of inexpensive processors.  As word leaked out, area residents imagined an economic boom—until they learned that Google would want no more than fifty to one hundred workers to man the facility.

Such data centers are sprouting around the globe, as are installations of another cutting-edge industry, solar power.  In 2008, Arizona Public Service and Spain-based Abengoa Solar jointly announced they’d soon build “the largest solar power plant in the world” at Gila Bend, sixty miles southwest of Phoenix in the Arizona desert.  Total permanent jobs:  eighty-five.

Perhaps outposts such as these tell us more about the future of work and company towns than any other model.  More akin to lighthouses than to bustling urban areas such as Lowell, Massachusetts or Gary, Indiana, they suggest a future of technological marvels and employment shortages. 

Coming soon:  George Jetson whiling away long hours on the unemployment line.

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