Facebook, Amazon, and Google are reviving the ill-fated “company towns” of the Gilded Age
By Julianne Tveten
Source: The Baffler
EARLIER THIS YEAR IN SILICON VALLEY, a phalanx of six-figure-earning Facebook engineers confronted Mark Zuckerberg about subsidizing their extortionate rents. Meanwhile, the contract laborers who serve them bacon kimchi dogs and duck confit found themselves cordoned off from the affordable housing market—where salaries approaching $74,000 qualify—and began converting their garages into homes. Still, if these events point to a dire situation, they’re but the latest stirrings of the hulking leviathan that is the region’s housing crisis—an issue that has peppered the headlines of news outlets great and small for nearly a decade.
Thanks in part to this accretion of bad press, Zuckerberg and his fellow cyborgian billionaires have sprung into action as property developers. In July, Facebook announced plans to create “Willow Campus,” an aggressively rectilinear, Rem Koolhaas-designed rebrand of a Menlo Park office complex it purchased in 2015. The expansion of its headquarters will boast fifteen hundred units of housing, 15 percent of which it claims will be “offered at below-market rates.” If that isn’t sufficiently microcosmic, the company promises to dedicate 125,000 square feet to commercial space, promising a grocery store, pharmacy, and the cryptically worded “additional community-facing retail.”
Equally if not more responsible for crafting California’s bloodsucking geometric crapscape is Google, whose newfangled parent company Alphabet has vowed to provide temporary housing, in the form of modular dwellings, for three hundred of its employees in its home city of Mountain View. For years, Google has been seeking to wrest control of the city from its government; last year, it gained over 370,000 square feet of office space along with the right to develop 1.4 million square feet in the North Bayshore neighborhood after vying with LinkedIn to furnish the territory with a new police station, road improvements, and college scholarships. (The modular homes will be constructed on a former NASA air base, which the company signed an agreement to lease for sixty years.)
We’re witnessing, in these schemes, a revival of the company town. An oft-recurring feature of the Western capitalist imaginary, the company town’s American variety dates back to the nineteenth century; railroad industrialist George Pullman’s eponymous city in Illinois provides one of the more illustrative examples. Pullman characterized his town, completed in 1884, as a lucrative, pro-business utopia filled with satisfied participants, employee and investor alike. Its veneer was indeed shiny: the amenities it promised—yards, indoor plumbing, gas, trash removal—were rare for industrial workers of the time, and its ultra-formal gardens and shopping center, which equipped them with a barbershop, dentist’s offices, a bank, and a slew of overpriced retail, offered a vanguard capitalist’s dabbling in luxury.
There was a catch: paternalistic and omnipresent capitalism. Immaculately manicured trees were merely curtains obscuring a panopticon, one that kept workers behaviorally economized. (White workers, that is—the town expressly excluded black people.) “[Pullman] wanted to create a company town where everybody would be . . . content with their place in the capitalist system,” Jane Eva Baxter explained to Paleofuture. Workers were forced to rent—with no option to buy—the uniform row houses that corralled them, and from which they worried over persistent inspection and imminent eviction. Their employers likewise controlled which books filled their libraries and which performances took place in their theaters, and a ban precluded them from congregating at saloons or holding town meetings unless sanctioned by the Pullman Company, lest they entertain the notion of unionizing.
The forced exchange not just of labor, but of personal autonomy, for the tenuous ability to buy bread or light one’s stove is, in a word, inhumane, and in three, cause for revolt. Pullman workers had organized several strikes throughout the 1880s, but none were so monumental as the one in 1894. In response to the prior year’s economic depression, Pullman opted to slash workers’ wages; rents, however, remained steadfastly fixed, enriching the company’s reported worth of $62 million while leaving workers with as little as two cents (after paying for housing costs). In partnership with the American Railway Union, four thousand Pullman workers, galvanized and desperate, withheld their labor, and legions of workers throughout the nation would soon join them. Yet the strike collapsed when the Cleveland administration, in a violent display of authoritarianism, deployed federal troops and imprisoned labor leaders. Not long after, by Illinois Supreme Court order, the town was forced to sell everything not used expressly for “industry.”
Still, Pullman’s fiasco didn’t discourage other magnates. In 1900, chocolatier Milton Hershey began construction on a factory complex near a collection of dairy farms in rural Pennsylvania, where he declared there’d be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil”—a Delphic precursor to Google’s now infamous and defunct slogan, “Don’t be evil.” To attract workers, Hershey reclaimed many of Pullman’s gilded comforts: indoor plumbing, pristine lawns, central heating, garbage pickup, and eventually, the theaters and sports venues any company town worth its salt would host.
What was designed as a wholesome advertisement for the company quickly morphed into a miserly surveillance state. Hershey, who served as the town’s mayor, constable, and fire chief, patrolled neighborhoods to survey the maintenance of houses and hired private detectives to monitor employees’ after-hours alcohol consumption. While the town managed to stage a sort of idyllic capitalist performance for onlookers, by the 1930s its employees resented their binding environs and the Depression-era layoffs they endured from a company earning ten times its annual payroll in after-tax profits. A crippled attempt to unionize with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) bred a 1937 sit-down strike; days later, farmers and company cheerleaders armed with rocks and pitchforks bloodied and ejected the dissidents, destabilizing for good another corporate-civic lark. Hershey’s vast estate, however, remains unscathed to this day.
If Facebook and Google have begun to revive the company town, Amazon has already given it a futuristic luster. California’s inchoate company towns pale in comparison to their northern counterpart, which occupies 19 percent of Seattle’s office space and a farcical 8.1 million square feet. (Its CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, has vowed to acquire four million more over the next five years, a muscular move meant to complement his midlife-crisis physique.) Touting its sponsorship of local engineering and sustainability programs, Amazon crows about such “investments” as its dog park, playing fields, art installations, and Buckyball-reminiscent domical gardens. Of course, with Bezos’s colonizing aspirations comes yet another bellicose rental market—the very conditions Facebook and Google claim to be combatting. When considered alongside its recent purchase of Whole Foods, Amazon’s dream of tethering its employees to their jobs—by way of homogenized cubes for rent and lightly discounted quinoa chips—is fast becoming a reality.
Like George Pullman and Milton Hershey, the tech industry’s elites take all prisoners in their respective campaigns to expand, absorb, and dominate. The tech company town, that most contemporary of neofeudalist wangles, is the next step in West Coast corporate behemoths’ quest to lure employees into a twenty-four-hour working existence—the totalizing successor to bottomless Indian food spreads, on-site bike-repair shops, and Frank Gehrized habitats. Its premise deviates not at all from that of its antecedents: a genial, painstakingly aestheticized service to workers, where beneficent corporate hands take the reins of the public good for the well-being of the community. This time around, though, that community will be bridled with union–busting and data-harvesting apparatuses sure to make even the most paranoid techno-tyrant salivate.
Certainly, the megalomaniacs who aim to populate municipal fixtures with registered-trademark logos will expect cities to genuflect at every turn. Bezos has exemplified this in Seattle, whose recent measure to “tax the rich” drove him to seek another location in which to build Amazon’s second headquarters. While residents of its hometown grapple with a commandeering leech that “suck[s] up our resources and refus[es] to participate in daily upkeep,” Amazon will soon attempt to prime another city to be sapped. Meanwhile, the smooth-faced metallic vampires of California have just begun to cosplay as frontiersmen, raring to follow Bezos’s lead. Drunk on glib TED Talk propagandizing, and accustomed to dismissing the civic inconveniences of corporate regulations and poor neighborhoods, our technosettlers feel little need to heed the lessons of the past when their chief interest is to monopolize the future. Taxing the techie billionaires is a start, but only when cities refuse to be their hosts will they cease to be their parasites.