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

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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

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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.

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