The real work, the heavy lifting, starts where the frontier ends. The pioneers, the Lewis and Clarks, just drew their index fingers to the West and moved forward ho. Then, when it was all mapped and named, Neil Armstrong looked to the moon and said, upward. Even after that, we squirmed around, followed the empire’s imperative—out, go, spread. But today’s America doesn’t want to walk on the moon, and it doesn’t want a new war. Are we settled now? Is this it?
Mayor James Thompson of Sugar Land, Texas wants you to know that his city is not for sale. Which, at first, is not surprising at all, because usually towns are not for sale. This was in February, after SugarDaddie.com, a website that helps older men connect with younger women, offered four and a half million dollars to Sugar Land, Texas for the town to change its name to SugarDaddie.com, Texas.
“Really, it was never even a consideration of the mayor,” councilman Joe Zimmerman tells the Independent over the phone. “All of us in Sugar Land are very passionate and proud of our history.” In city hall, a plaque hangs on the wall, with pictures and little blurbs that tell the story of this sugar plantation town. Back in 1843, Samuel May Williams founded the Imperial Sugar company here, which has been headquartered in Sugar Land ever since. It was a company town—Imperial housed its workers, built schools for the children and hospitals for the sick. It was self-sufficient that way, and the railroads only helped Imperial to keep its little town happy and well fed.
The Imperial Sugar factory is no longer in service, now a big brick landmark off the highway. Still, Zimmerman notes, “we are very protective of our past, recognizing that we have moved well beyond a sugar town.” Asked if there were an offer to be made right here, right now that would persuade Sugar Land otherwise, he belts a hearty chuckle that rings through the phone. Names are names, and places are places, and especially in Texas, tradition is tradition. Geography, Joe announces, is not a commodity.
In 2005, the five members of the Santa, Idaho town commission vote unanimously to rename the town SecretSanta.com in exchange for at least $20,000 from the gift-sharing website. The company is allowed to erect signs all over town, though the town post office keeps its name so that there will be no disappointment when thousands of children, as do and have done for decades, send their annual letters to Santa’s Idaho address come December.
Five years earlier, after an offer of $110,000 and twenty new computers for the school computer lab, Halfway, Oregon becomes Half.com, America’s First Dot-Com City, according to the signs. Nothing, of course, is Dot-Com-y about it; Halfway is a small town along a main road, sitting in a vast, barren valley beside Oregon’s snowtips. Beautiful, to be sure, but a publicity ploy in name only. “We literally put the brand on the map,” Half.com vice president Mark Hughes announced.
The same year: Clark, Texas, a little town in Denton County with a population of just about 200, becomes DISH, Texas. EchoStar Communication Corporation offers the residents of DISH, Texas free cable for ten years; Mayor Bill Merritt is happy to oblige. “We really look at this as kind of a rebirth for our community.”
Topeka, Kansas becomes Google, Kansas on March 1, 2010 in a bid to help persuade Google to invest its fiber optic technology in the city. They held the name for a month as a push to attract Google’s “Fiber for Communities” program, which offered to install its new Internet technology in a handful of locations.
There is something irksome here, something laughable in the same way that Joe Zimmerman and the council of Sugar Land, TX laughed when they first encountered a bid from SugarDaddie.com. The idea of SugarDaddie.com, Texas first appalls us on a very immediate, superficial level. We would never want our children growing up in a hometown named after the venerable tradition of online dating. It’s quite similar to the feeling we get when we talk about White Settlement, Texas. A population of 16,000, the town needed to distinguish itself from the Native American settlement nearby. When city representatives announced a referendum to change its name in 2005, residents rejected the change by a landslide 2,388 votes to 219.
In this democratic assertion of White Settlement’s name, though, we open the door to a larger discomfort, one that transcends democracy entirely. Despite its questionable
racial politics, White Settlement stands for a tradition that its citizens are prepared to defend. In SugarDaddie.com, on the other hand, we are forced to confront a different kind of logic, one that seems peculiar largely because it is familiar: corporations target those facets of our lives thought to be off-limits. At the dinner table, my mother used to make us put our cell phones on the counter before we ate. If I texted under the table, I didn’t get dessert. When I visit my parents in 2013, we are texting each other under the table to discuss dad’s lamb chops, or checking our email, or doing something that we once thought to be not-dinner-table-appropriate. We grow accustomed to the technological tragedies of the past, the voice of the elderly scolding the kids these days waxes anachronistic, and we move to inhabit the new spaces that our companies carve out for us. An advertisement I encountered last month reads: “How to Tattoo a company’s Brand Name or Logo and how to Get Paid from Them.” Meanwhile, Google’s Glass project, a headset that integrates our in-the- world vision with our on-the-web one, seeks to refashion the living experience itself. We would, with Glass, wake up to Google, although most of us already do.
In this sense, the investment in geography appears to be the next step in corporate empire. First, the consumable, then the corporeal, now the country itself. The Corporate America—a formal, legal, explicit one, where public space is claimed as private, each little house on the prairie.com—is around the corner; that’s just the free market at work.
It’s a dystopic vision (and perhaps a paranoid one), the nation dominated by the Company Town. As Hardy Green writes in Company Town, “To those who like to think of the United States as a sweet land of liberty, the very words sound un-American.” If Americans are free, they cannot be bound to the corporation, who might, in this dystopic vision, administer where people live and what they eat and whom they worship.
“It’s true,” Green writes. “Company towns are un- American—and they are the essence of America.”
In 1903, milton hershey purchased 1,200 acres of barren land in Derry Church, Pennsylvania. He was moving away from New York City, where his candy shop had recently closed, looking to expand on his line of five-cent Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars.
He hired surveyors to map out the plot, and an architect to begin developing blueprints for his Hershey’s Chocolate factory and the town that would grow around it. “Such a place,” Hershey dreamed, “would serve as a standing advertisement for the Hershey Co., its wholesome values, and its products,” Green writes. There would be, in Hershey’s own words, “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.”
And Hershey was right. His town had zoos and parks, schools and hospitals, pools and trolleys. Hershey workers received all of the benefits of the company town, with housing and medicine and retirement included. There was a junior college with free tuition; town churches received $20,000 endowments. Hershey’s wife Kitty developed the Hershey Industrial School inside the town, housing and educating orphans and providing them with $100 upon graduation. And, of course, there were no funeral homes or cemeteries allowed in the town; mortality and candy are unprofitable, albeit natural, bedfellows. Milton Hershey—who would act as the self-appointed mayor of his Pennsylvania Disneyland— was remaking the American city in chocolate. “The village had become such a sensation that little other marketing was needed—and the company ceased its print advertising,” Hardy writes.
Hershey, Pennsylvania would thrive in the following decades. Expanded production, new amenities, healthy hearth and home. Though different in style and scale, Hershey and the Dot-Com cities of our decade are based on the same mutual promise of exchange: big business offers services to town residents; residents offer control of their public space. Half.com offers a new computer lab to the school; Hershey offers a new school completely. This was how America was formed, industry first, people second, chasing each other westward across the continent.
George Pullman developed his own model town in the 1880s. In four years, he transformed 4,000 acres of Illinois swampland into a large-scale manufacturing town of 8,000 residents. In the city of Pullman, cable car factories loomed over an elegant residential neighborhood of tree-lined streets and brick homes with running water and functioning gas.
Green’s list is long: Firestone Park, Ohio of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company; Alcoa, Tennessee of the aluminum producer Alcoa; Kohler Village, Wisconsin of the Kohler Co. All the way through the ‘40s, when war-time production sprouted insta-cities throughout the West, and into the ‘60s. Valencia, California, for example, was planned by the Newhall Land and Farming Company, separated into little villages with landscaped boulevards that snake along schools and shopping malls and community centers and golf courses. “Built as Promised,” is Valencia’s catchphrase; “Awesometown,” its unofficial brand name.
The recognition of this history, though—of America as the land of the Big Business buy-and-build rather than the Lewis and Clark see-and-settle—is not an endorsement. Pullman’s Illinois model town famously erupted in labor unrest; Hershey’s, much later, the same way. All throughout the company towns of the early twentieth century—mining and coal, oil and steel—workers were exploited heavily by the company benefactor.
Yet the Company Town reminds us, against Joe Zimmerman’s hearty chuckle, that geography has always been a commodity in this country. After all, cities are incorporated, not founded. And states, too, were economic entities before they were patriotic ones. Hawaii, the 50th shining star, had sugar plantations; California, in 1850, had its gold. There’s a confusion in this county between what is public and what is private, what belongs to the country and what belongs to its citizens. There is something irksome about SugarDaddie.com, Texas, but perhaps it’s a discomfort with the origins of America rather than its future. Then again, maybe it’s both.
Still, Hershey was a real human, the type of flesh-and- blood human that, despite Citizens United and the new “corporate humanity,” we recognize as our own. More important, he was a human that lived in his little town in Pennsylvania. SugarDaddie.com has nothing to do with the cute, commercial town of Sugar Land, Texas in just the same way Half.com had nothing to do with the little green hamlet of Halfway, Oregon. This is the key difference between the history of the Company Town and its contemporary counterpart: one is named from within, and one from without. When someone gets on the Hershey’s Kiss ride at the Hershey amusement park, he is reminded of the real things that Hershey produced, the chocolate bars that were made in that now-defunct factory next door. SugarDaddie.com, Texas is instead a commemoration of a far-off organization producing something fundamentally immaterial. The production used to take place within the town; now the product is the town itself.
This reminds us: the jobs are not coming back. The real Company Towns of today’s American industry, or at least the bulk of them, are beyond our borders. But we would never see Nike, Indonesia or Levi Strauss, South Africa; these are not the places to which American companies want to direct our attention. SugarDaddie.com thus forces us to confront this new commercial America, one that has increasingly few monuments or landmarks to offer. The Company Town may have relied on exploitation, but it was exploitation that felt present within the community; it was the workers versus the boss, circumscribed by the town limits.
But capital is mobile, and labor is not. And so there is something about the Dot-Com ownership of America that feels far more in-the-shadows, pulling strings from an invisible skyscraper. These towns have no relationship with their owners, and there is no collective experience. That these websites are selecting cities with such similar names to their domains only serves to reinforce the perception of some sneaky sleight-of-hand. Who is SugarDaddie.com? At least we knew Hershey. He had a smile and a patch of grey hair on his head, and he liked to hold orphans in his arms in the photographs.
There is a part of the american southwest, a few hundred miles east of the Rockies, that looks like an endless checkerboard from above. Clean white lines mark off squares of maroon and brown flatland, each little parcel with its own terrestrial color. Big squares and small squares fit perfectly next to each other, and not an inch is missing from the patchwork. We’ve done an incredible thing making this quilt out of the continent; from the plane, it looks like it could never have been any other way.
It is a scary feeling to approach the geographical singularity, when all the villages on the Amazon have been purged, every nook and cranny of the ocean discovered and plotted and TED-talked. And it is because of the loss of the frontier, a fear that we can only build up now, not out. That isn’t to say that we are not expanding, filling out those empty lots on the outskirts of Phoenix or Las Vegas. But these are spaces that have already been named, even if those names are X35-F or Maricopa County-adjacent. They are merely awaiting investors.
At the end of the frontier, there is no more writing left to do, only re-writing. In the Dot-Com city, we find that the entire country is, in essence, becoming a derivation of itself. So while we may not like the original manuscript— White Settlement, TX, for example, or even Hershey, PA— we are even more concerned with the re-write, because we know who owns the pen.
DAVID ADLER B’14 is the essence of America.