- Getty Images
Mega-corporations – from Facebook to Amazon – are creating modern-day company towns.
In Menlo Park, California, Facebook plans to build a new campus with 1,500 residences, a walkable retail district, a grocery store, and a hotel for its employees. Meanwhile, Amazon recently announced that it will build a second headquarters that could effectively turn the chosen city into a company town – much like what happened to Seattle when the online retail giant came to Seattle in the late 1990s. Dubbed HQ2, approximately 50,000 employees will work there.
Since the 19th century, companies have built company towns across the United States – municipalities where they own large percentages of the housing, stores, schools, churches, roads, and parks. In these towns, the corporation is also often the largest employer.
At their peak a century ago, there were more than 2,500 company towns housing 3% of the US population, according to The Economist.
As CityLab notes, many early company towns served as a way for corporations to manage labor relations, since they owned all the homes and could evict strike leaders. More modern company towns, like Hershey, Pennsylvania (named after famed chocolatier Milton Hershey’s candy corporation), gave residents say in what the town prioritized.
Since then, the concept of the company town has evolved. Some have similar tactics to early company towns, while other companies build massive headquarters that dominate an existing community’s infrastructure and space – and create a new ecosystem of businesses around the swelling employee population. According to a recent New York Times piece, in a decade, Facebook will have space for 35,000 employees in Menlo Park, which is slightly more than the city’s current population.
Take a look at the nearly 200-year evolution of company towns.
Lowell, Massachusetts by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company (1823)
Many historians consider Lowell, Massachusetts to be the first company town in the US.
In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell – the businessman known for pushing the American industrial revolution forward – established his first textile factory and the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts.
A few years after Lowell’s death in 1823, a group of his associates founded the town of Lowell (about 20 miles north of Waltham) in his name and a series of textile mills under a new company name (the Merrimack Manufacturing Company). As Smithsonian notes, they recruited mostly young, single women from rural areas to work in the factories (many of whom participated in strikes due to poor working conditions). The workers lived in boardinghouses and attended church, both built by Merrimack.
By 1836, 18,000 people lived in Lowell. Those employed by Merrimack worked at the textile mills. But by the end of WWII, many of the mills had closed. Today, much of Lowell has transformed into a national historic park and a modern city of over 100,000 residents that, in recent years, has moved toward a post-industrial economy with growing success.
Steinway Village, New York City by Legendary Steinway & Sons pianos (1870)
- National Museum of American History
Much of present-day Astoria, Queens in New York City started as Steinway Village, a company town developed by the piano company Steinway & Sons.
In 1853, German immigrant Henry Steinway started the business in lower Manhattan.
As it grew, Steinway & Sons began to need more space, so in 1870, it started constructing a 400-acre complex, including a foundry, sawmill, an amusement park, library, church, fire house, post office, and housing for its workers (and later, non-employees). The arrangement gave the company a great deal of social control, since Steinway could evict strike leaders from company housing.
Today, the original Steinway factory still exists and produces over 1,000 pianos per year.
Scotia, California by Pacific Lumber Company (1883)
- California State Library/Sonoma County Library
Though Pacific Lumber Company did not found Scotia, California, the company established its headquarters there and maintained all of the town’s housing from the early 1880s to the mid-1980s.
Over that time period, the company built 275 homes rented by employees, along with a hotel, post office, several churches, and a shopping center. In 1985, Pacific Lumber’s longtime owners sold their business, and a New York hedge fund bought the property.
In 2011, Scotia became a self-governing town, where renters could choose to buy their homes. Three years later, it formed its first city council.
Hershey, Pennsylvania by The Hershey Company (1909)
- Hershey Community Archives
Around 1909, he also started constructing a town around it for employees, with streets appropriately named Chocolate and Cocoa avenues. The company’s plan, which prioritized community amenities, called for affordable homes that Hershey workers could rent or own, as well as public schools, an all-boys orphanage, shops, restaurants, and a trolley system. During the Great Depression, the Hershey Company also built a large hotel, large park, amusement park, theater, zoo, and sports arena.
Most of the original structures still exists today. And as CityLab notes, Hershey’s Utopian, progressive vision for a company town could be why the present-day community is (relatively) economically healthy.
Marktown, Indiana by The Mark Manufacturing Company (1917)
- Marktown Preservation Society
The Mark Manufacturing Company built Marktown for its steel workers in 1917.
At its height around 1920, 14,000 people worked at the steel mill in the town, which featured 200 homes and walkable streets. The original masterplan, which was never completed, called for 8,000 residences, a post office, a grade school, a high school, a theater, a recreational center, and an expansive park. Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed pastel-colored homes made of fireproof brick and stucco.
Only 10% of the original design, including 200 homes across a dozen blocks, was built. Marktown become a steel manufacturing center.
The steel mill, now owned by Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, employs fewer than 5,000 people in 2017, according to CityLab. Marktown’s decline can be attributed to technological advances in the steel industry, which meant that fewer workers were needed in the mill.
Eagle Mountain, California by Kaiser Steel Corporation (1948)
In 1948, Kaiser Steel Corporation (led by noted industrialist Henry J. Kaiser) founded the company town of Eagle Mountain, California. Today, it is a ghost town.
Kaiser built over 400 homes, as well as several tennis courts, schools, an auditorium, a park, a shopping center, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, a grocery store, a post office, a medical clinic, and nearly a dozen churches. At its peak, Eagle Mountain housed over 4,000 people.
The town produced iron ore until the 1970s, when the mining industry started to decline. Kaiser Steel Corporation eventually turned into Kaiser Ventures.
Irvine, California by Irvine Company (1960s)
- Orange County Archives
Before the Irvine Company masterplanned this town for 50,000 people in the late 1960s, it was a large swath of farmland owned by the prominent California landowner James Irvine. The plan called for “villages” (separated by six-lane streets) containing homes, shopping centers, religious institutions, parks, and schools.
When it began, Irvine was not a traditional company town, since most residents did not work at the Irvine Company, a real estate developer. By 1970, the town had a population of 10,000.
Today, over 260,000 people live in Irvine – home to a University of California campus and dozens of headquarters for different companies.
Table Rock, Wyoming by Colorado Interstate Gas (late 1970s)
Now a ghost town, Table Rock, Wyoming was founded by Colorado Interstate Gas (CIG) as a company town to house workers during the region’s housing shortage in the late 1970s.
Built near the company’s natural gas processing plant, Table Rock featured three- and four-bedroom homes, where employees and their families lived for free. It was a small development with just 55 homes and a community center.
Around 2000, Table Rock began to decline, after El Paso Corporation acquired CIG. In 2003, the plant and town were bought by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, which decided not to operate the village. Table Rock closed that year, and the remaining homes were demolished in 2011.
There are two main types of modern company towns. The first: A corporation builds a campus with a huge footprint in an existing town or city.
In the past few decades, a number of corporations, including IBM, Google, Amazon, and GM, have built campuses with huge footprints in towns and cities across the US. These companies often becoming an area’s largest employer, changing how it functions.
In Seattle, the home of Amazon’s headquarters since the late 1990s, the online retailer has effectively turned the city into a company town.
“Amazon so dominates Seattle that it has as much office space as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined. And the growth continues: Amazon’s Seattle footprint of 8.1 million square feet is expected to soar to more than 12 million square feet within five years,” The Seattle Times reported in August 2017. “And while Seattle’s booming economy is often attributed to a wide variety of factors, increasingly, it’s all about one company.”
Amazon has a domineering presence in the city, where longtime residents have complained of rising traffic, soaring rent, and constant construction since the e-commerce giant moved in. The presence of Amazon is so huge in Seattle that it has also spurred the openings of restaurants and bars that benefit from the headquarters’ lunchtime and happy-hour crowds, as well as new bus lines for Amazon interns.
The ecommerce giant may turn another (undetermined) city into a company town when it builds a second headquarters that will staff 50,000 employees.
The second: A corporation builds employee housing and public infrastructure.
Facebook is one of the few companies in recent years to continue the legacy of the traditional company town, where the corporation master-plans a new community for its employees to work and live in.
By 2021, Facebook will complete the first phase of Willow Park, a corporate campus that will include 1,500 housing units, retail, a hotel, and grassy plazas in Menlo Park, California.
According to The Times, the development will be between two majority-Hispanic communities, Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto. Out of the 1,500 units, Facebook has agreed with the city to offer 225 at below-market rates, but the company’s employees will live in most of the housing.
In total, construction of the 56-acre site is expected to last a decade.
“Part of our vision is to create a neighborhood center that provides long-needed community services,” Facebook wrote in a blog post.
Relatedly, Google is spending $30 million and partnering with the modular-home startup Factory OS to build 300 units of pre-fab housing for employees in Mountain View, California.
- Factory OS
Construction will happen at the Moffett Federal Airfield, a site the company has leased from the government since 2014. The plan is being pitched as a temporary solution to the area’s affordable housing crisis.