When a friend introduces me to a new city, one of the first questions I like to ask him or her is what sort of companies are headquartered there. Which industries employ the most residents? What fuels the economy? I find that these inquiries can tell me a lot about the city’s culture.
Hardy Green’s book The Company Town traces the history of the industries that literally built dozens of American cities, from Hershey, Pennsylvania to Kohler, Wisconsin. It’s mainly about what happens when a people who are in the business of creating chocolate bars or plumbing fixtures try to create a city. The model goes something like this: When a company wanted to locate its operations on new land near cheap, available resources it needed to draw laborers to the area, or at least provide housing and food for the workers. This was at a time (nineteenth and early twentieth century) when much of America was still untrodden ground. Consequently, the company leadership would contract for the creation of housing and other services and populate their own little towns for the sole purpose of production. In remote mining towns, this might look like little more than tents and a general store. In more substantial ventures, a town could include schools, hospitals, movie theaters and other services that were supervised by not directly controlled by the company. Some of these towns grew beyond their corporate beginnings and remain destinations—at least for tourism—today. But others like Gary, Indiana and Kannapolis, North Carolina lost most of their income when their central industries faltered.
Besides tracking urban development across America, Green’s book also follows industry-union relations through the past few centuries. It reminded me of the significant space that unions inhabit in our cities. (I should have listed them in this post.) Most of us have seen the power of a teachers’ or bus drivers’ strike to effectively shut a city down—and in the case of company towns based around a single industry, that power can be even greater. This isn’t to say that unions were allowed much authority by their corresponding companies, but rather that they demanded it in such a way as to challenge their superiors and, in doing so engaged entire cities in the conflict. Naturally, when everyone works for the same lumber mill, a wage cut at that factory matters to every single resident. A pattern of violent confrontations that often brought in the National Guard evidences itself in company towns throughout the nation, yet it also shaped the labor laws we have today.
Green divides his company towns into two categories: utopia and “exploitationville.” In the former towns, company leadership provided quality services, decent wages and a general sense of care for their employees. In the latter, CEOs and managers ruled with a harsh hand, offering the bare minimums in housing, amenities and working conditions. As one might expect, the companies that treated their workers poorly (especially in the brutal mining industry) experienced dramatic disputes between labor and management that often climaxed in violence.
So the history of company towns informs us about unions and illustrates the tumultuous process of building new cities. Moreover, it also provides perspective on the cities that are constructed around the latest industries today, especially those in China. Over the past few decades, China has erected cities from the ground up in a matter of months, and populated them with millions of people to work the factories that provide clothing and other goods for much of the world. In an effort to spur growth, the Chinese government designated dozens of “special economic zones” where companies are exempt from certain taxes and regulations. They then build high-rise housing, shopping centers and so on in order to support new populations of workers, many of whom are relocated from rural areas. Given the entanglement of government and industry in communist China, these special economic zones are not company towns per say, especially because they house multiple companies. However, they possess the similar motive of building entire cities for the central purpose of industry.
Company towns exist across America and they define the landscape of many areas, whether in the hulking shapes of abandoned factories or the fruitful employment of a city’s residents. As industry continues to direct the formation of cities around the world, keep an eye out for successes and failures along the way.
Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy. New York: Basic Books, 2010.