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A sign of things to come … Elon Musk’s town, Snailbrook, near Austin, Texas. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Is Elon Musk creating a utopian city? The hellish, heavenly history of company towns

The Tesla founder has broken ground on a plot in Texas, while Google and Meta are building workers’ homes in California. Should we be celebrating or worrying?

Tue 18 Apr 2023 05.00 EDT
Last modified on Tue 18 Apr 2023 11.31 EDT

Welcome to Snailbrook, Texas. Established: 2021. Population: about 12, but with many more to come. In fact, in a decade or two, Snailbrook could be a gleaming, utopian city, shaped by the futuristic vision of the unavoidable tech titan of our day, Elon Musk.

Musk is moving into Texas big time. According to reports, he has quietly bought as many as 2,430 hectares (6,000 acres) in the Austin area – where his core business, Tesla, has been headquartered since 2021 – upon which factories and facilities are under construction for the rocket company SpaceX and the tunnelling company Boring (whose mascot is a snail, hence the town’s name). Now, Musk is adding housing for workers (which reportedly will be more affordable to rent than that in Austin) and Boring executives are talking of building an entire city. Should we be celebrating or worrying?

Corporation-built towns tend to go one of two ways: heavenly or hellish, but usually the second. On the one hand, companies want to build a place that attracts and nurtures its employees; on the other, they want to minimise overheads and squeeze as much out of their captive townsfolk as they can get away with.

Overriding all of this is the temptation for the founders (almost always white men) to build monuments to themselves and rule like dictators. Given Musk’s reputation for impulsive heavy-handedness and extreme attention-seeking, this does not bode well. But this is the guy who promises to colonise Mars, so it is worth examining what he is doing down here on Earth.

An aerial shot of Snailbrook, showing Boring Company facilities, as well as a multi-use sports site. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

What will Musktopia look like? Details are scant. As well as factories, the Snailbrook site – in Bastrop county, about 35 miles outside Austin – hosts 12 prefab trailer homes and a depressing-looking outdoor recreation area. Plans submitted to the county in January, called "Project Amazing – Phase I", show basic outlines of a few streets with Boring-themed names – Boring Boulevard, Waterjet Way, Cutterhead Crossing – fringed by blank plots for 110 more detached homes. Where the streets meet the adjacent parcel of land, they simply end, promising more to come.

If there is a vision for Snailbrook, it has yet to emerge. If anything, Musk and co have tried to keep the scheme a secret – and it might have worked if it weren’t for inquisitive neighbours such as Chap Ambrose, a computer programmer who lives nearby and has flown drones over the site. "The work that they have done so far does not give me confidence that there’s a masterplan," he says. "You see the public documents, and you see the way they work, what they do and have to redo. The grand vision is unclear at this point, I guess, is a nice way to say it."

Boring Company executives are talking of building an entire city

In some ways, Snailbrook is similar to the first American company towns, which sprang up in the 19th century as industries such as mining, textiles and steelworks sought to house large numbers of workers in remote or sparsely populated areas. Employees would have to take what they were offered – usually tents or basic wooden shacks housing several families. At best, there might be a church or a school, plus a company-owned store, which would often earn back what the company paid its workers or lead them into debt.

They were often closer to prison camps than ideal cities. Colorado coal-mining towns owned by John D Rockefeller were policed by armed guards, who prevented anyone entering or leaving. An inspector visiting one in 1910 wrote that the miners’ dwellings "smack of the direst poverty … Not all of the houses are equipped with water, and practically none have sewerage … The people reflect their surroundings; slatternly dressed women and unkempt children throng the dirty streets and alleys of the camp."

When the miners went on strike over their conditions in 1913, the conflict turned violent, culminating in the Ludlow Massacre of April 1914. The National Guard attacked the strikers’ tent city on the company’s behalf, killing at least 19 people, including a dozen children.

Dire accommodation in Ludlow, Colorado, 1913. At least 19 people were killed in April 1914 when a strike over living conditions in the company town was put down violently by the National Guard. Photograph: Alamy

Even in more peaceable settlements, paternalistic captains of industry sought to control every aspect of their worker-citizens’ lives. In Lowell, Massachusetts, established in the 1820s by the cotton magnate Francis Cabot Lowell, the workforce was overwhelmingly young, single and female (women were cheaper than men). Lowell had rigid ideas about how his employees should conduct themselves. They slept in dormitories, rose to a bell at 4.30am and worked 12-hour days. They were forbidden from swearing, talking during work or drinking alcohol, while attendance at church was compulsory. The "Lowell girls" did at least receive some education, via evening classes (if they could stay awake), which meant many were able to leave after a few years to enter a less gruelling profession.

The idea of the company town as a utopian model took root in Britain in the late 19th century, where reforming industrialists sought an alternative to the urban squalor endured by most of their factory workers. The result was "model villages", closer to the garden city philosophy, with quality housing and plenty of fresh air and green space. The idea was to keep workers happy, healthy and productive.

Many of them still stand today: Creswell in Derbyshire, built by the local coal-mining company; Titus Salt’s Saltaire and Joseph Rowntree’s New Earswick in Yorkshire; Port Sunlight on the Wirral, founded by William Lever to house workers at his soap factory; and the textbook example, Bournville, near Birmingham, built by the Cadbury family.

Bournville, in what is now south-west Birmingham, was established by the Cadbury family. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Despite indulging Britain’s sweet tooth, George Cadbury was an abstemious Quaker and "a visionary social reformer", says Peter Richmond, the chief executive of the Bournville Village Trust. "I think what really drove him was: ‘How can I tackle the inequalities and the social ills and the problems that I see in the inner city?’ This was about benefiting the population of Birmingham, and dealing with the challenges in Birmingham, as much as having a good local workforce."

In 1893, Cadbury began buying up rural land to the south-west of Birmingham and laying out a low-density village, alongside the young architect William Alexander Harvey. There were semi-detached cottages in a variety of architectural styles, with modern conveniences and large gardens (each with a fruit tree). There were parks and allotments, schools, hospitals, a swimming pool and a sports ground, but no pubs; the Quakers still had boundaries. "Another part of the estate had a sort of country retreat for children from the inner cities," says Richmond. "About 20,000 children a year came out just to enjoy two weeks in decent air in what would have then been the countryside."

Despite indulging Britain’s sweet tooth, George Cadbury was an abstemious Quaker and a ‘visionary social reformer’

Crucially, Bournville was not exclusively a workers’ town: Cadbury employees made up only 50% of its population. In 1900, Cadbury put the Bournville estate under the control of an independent charitable trust, which still manages it today. So unlike in many company towns, residents’ tenancy was not dependent on their employment status. Bournville remains a nice place to live, says Richmond, with a mix of private and social housing (but still no pubs).

American industrialists were thinking along similar lines to those in Britain, albeit with more capitalism and less philanthropy, resulting in factory towns such as Hershey, Pennsylvania (what is it with chocolate companies?) and Pullman, Chicago, founded by the railway-carriage maker George Pullman.

Pullman was even grander than Bournville, featuring modern brick houses with gas and running water, grand civic buildings, parks and hotels (but, again, no bars serving alcohol). But when a recession hit in 1893, Pullman fired hundreds of his workers or lowered their wages by up to 30%, while keeping their rents and utility charges the same. Already fed up with Pullman’s feudal reign, the townsfolk went on strike. Railway workers across the country joined in and the National Guard had to be called in to get the trains running again. A few years later, the Illinois supreme court ordered the company to sell the town.

Walt Disney’s unrealised plans for Epcot, the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Photograph: Disney

If there is one utopian whom Musk brings to mind, though, it is Walt Disney. Like Musk, Disney was a committed futurist with an almost boyish belief in technology’s liberating potential (albeit combined with socially conservative values). Like Musk, Disney sought to put his ideas into action by secretly buying up large tracts of land in central Florida – the area that is now Disney World.

Just as the Disney corporation negotiated concessions from state authorities to effectively police and service its Florida domain (which the governor, Ron DeSantis, is trying to strip away over Disney’s defence of LGBTQ+ rights), so Musk was attracted by Texas’s relatively low taxes and loose planning regulations. As Ambrose puts it: "As a Texas landowner, you can pretty much do damn well what you want."

Disney’s vision for the Florida site was to build Epcot – the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Epcot was to be a city of constant change, a test lab for new technologies; corporations would provide advance models of appliances such as televisions and microwave ovens to every home. However, Disney alone would dictate those changes; citizens would be allowed to live there for a maximum of three years, so no one would acquire voting rights.

Drawn by Walmart’s economic gravity, hundreds of other retailers have also set up shop in Bentonville

Architecturally, Disney’s unrealised scheme makes a lot of sense by today’s standards. Epcot was laid out like a garden city, with concentric rings of homes and green belts around a compact city centre that was to be air-conditioned, pedestrian and car-free. Cars were banished to the periphery, while public transport was to be provided by electric "people movers", like those at Disney’s theme parks, and a high-speed monorail. Musk’s "hyperloop" concept of transportation via underground tunnels (for which Boring was created) could almost be seen as a successor.

"If Musk was to try to do what Walt tried to do, it’s sort of 40 years too late," says Sam Gennawey, a Disney historian and urban planner. "He’s not being like Walt Disney and visionary in the sense of: ‘I’m going to create a different kind of community.’ What Musk is doing is much more akin to Pullman or Lowell, where it’s just housing nearby owned by the guy who owns the company. It’s basically an economic decision that’s being made. Is the architecture gonna look cool? Damn, I hope so. At least, better‑looking than his cars."

Corporate utopias have taken a different form in the 21st century. Rather than building model towns, the tech titans of Silicon Valley have ploughed their energies into their campuses, hiring world-class architects (Norman Foster in the case of Apple, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick for Google, Frank Gehry for Facebook) and building sealed-off enclaves offering free facilities: restaurants and cafes, beauty spas, jogging tracks, health centres, games arcades – all the amenities of real cities, but without the distracting civilians. This is the most dystopian model of all. Rather than "work with us and we’ll give you nice housing", the message seems to have become "why go home when you could live at work?"

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, was built by Walmart’s Walton family at a cost of $400m. Photograph: Danny Johnston/AP

Musk has taken this logic to its extreme. Shortly after taking over Twitter and firing half the company’s workforce, Musk demanded "long hours at high intensity" of the remaining employees, even installing beds in Twitter’s San Francisco offices. The local building regulators were not best pleased. Perhaps Musk has decided he can get away with more in Texas.

There are signs the tide is turning, however. Musk is not the only one taking another look at the idea of company towns. Google plans to build three neighbourhoods around its headquarters in Mountain View, in the Bay Area, with 7,000 homes – 20% of which will be affordable. Meanwhile, in Menlo Park, Facebook’s owner, Meta, is working on Willow Village, a mixed-use neighbourhood including 1,700 residential units, "developed collaboratively with and for our neighbours and the broader community", a spokesperson says.

Ironically, the company that is setting the standard for corporate town-building is one that has helped destroy many American towns: Walmart. The world’s largest retailer started in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 1950 and has never left. It is building a huge campus there, but it has also added to the city’s infrastructure and amenities, most conspicuously with the $400m (£250m) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2011 and is free to visit. As well as a huge art collection, it includes public spaces, ponds, outdoor concerts and nature trails.

Drawn by Walmart’s economic gravity, hundreds of other retailers have also set up shop in Bentonville. "The byproduct of that is they’ve infused a huge working population within walking distance of the Bentonville business district," says Gennawey. "It has all the amenities of a beautiful small southern town, with every store full and lots of activity and people walking around and sitting in the square. So, quite honestly, if Walmart offered me a job, I’d really think about it."

If Snailbrook is to be a success, this is the kind of thing Musk will have to do, although there is little indication he is leaning in this direction so far. If there is a lesson to be learned from the history, it could be that company towns work best when their creators put civic responsibility over egotistical urges and employee wellbeing over corporate profit. Does that sound like Musk?

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