A Strange Nostalgia for Disappearing Company Towns

As two planned communities worlds away from each other face similar pressures, a writer considers their utopian visions

oldtown_corr.jpg
Virtually simultaneous features in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times profile an endangered geographic species, the planned town or village: welfare-capitalist Scotia, California, and Maoist Nanjiecun, China. Both have loyal citizens proud of their community's status as an island, but are under pressure from outside interests: a hedge fund that wants to sell the first, banks holding loans to the second. Both are proud of anachronistic signs on their streets—prohibitions of "loitering, delaying, lingering or remaining idle" in California, "Long Live the Invincible Mao Zedong Thought" in Henan Province. Of course there are differences. The Chinese community seems to be a going concern, while the housing crisis is idling the West Coast lumber town. But it's striking how similar the two appear.

To the victims of the Cultural Revolution elsewhere, the red imagery (including the Stalin cult) must be a bitter reminder, and all too many of the American coal and steel towns were quasi-fascist camps. The violent Pullman Strike, which broke out in one of the most celebrated of these paternalist enclaves in 1894, is still remembered in Chicago. Yet the company town stands not just for oppression but for social capital that we so often find deficient in cities and suburbs alike. Quaint or bizarre, the survivors are vestiges of utopia.


Image: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in National

From This Author

Just In