The New American Company Town

Sam Zeif / 2018
Yale School of Architecture

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go I owe my soul to the company store.”

Tennessee Ernie

In 2025, when Facebook completes its latest corporate campus extension in Menlo Park, CA, it’s workforce of 35,000 will equal the city’s population [1]. Less than four miles south on Highway 101, Google has reached an agreement with the city of Mountain View to develop nearly 10,000 homes and 3.6 million square feet of office space, parks, and retail [2]. In a few short months, one of twenty cities in a nationwide sweepstakes will secure the 50,000 jobs promised by Amazon’s second headquarters, and relinquish billions in tax incentives and development perks as the cost of doing business [3].

As technology giants have grown, accumulating capital that dwarfs nationstates, they have run headlong into a conclusion reached by capitalists of a past gilded age: When the city can no longer organize the vast quantities of labor necessary, redesign the city. Today, more than a century after the last wave of company town development, the basic desire to retain labor within an infrastructure that returns the highest value to the corporation remains unchanged. The New American Company Town, currently under construction in pockets of exorbitant corporate wealth and influence nationwide, is steeped in strong precedents, drawing on a logic that is as old as the Virginia Company itself. Serving the new knowledge worker and operating within a heavily privatized political environment that is conducive to its basic desires, the new company town is set to fundamentally rewrite the relationship between the city and private interest.

The company town is both a quintessentially American entity—a symbol of paternal corporate power— and a representation of anti-American heretics—a place where a larger social agenda commands the workers very existence. At their peak in the early twentieth century, roughly 2,500 company towns were operational in the United States, housing roughly three percent of the population [4]. In the middle of the 20th century, this number dropped precipitously, and it is only recently, with the rampant growth of major technology companies, that the US is set for another wave of adoption. Although the New American Company Town shrouds itself in twenty-first century techno-utopianism, referring to the city as the “ultimate full-stack startup,” [5] its instigators must contend with a long legacy of corporate city-making that cuts today’s exploits down to size.

The company town must be understood as an ideology, not a rigid typology. Its form is mutable, although it frequently repeats itself. The labor it serves changes radically and its relationship to city politics is multi-varied. Its staying power, though, can be attributed to this organizational looseness, which is always accompanied by a persistent conviction: that corporations are equipped to responsibly provide for the entire life of the worker, and in turn, the life of the city. Entrapped in this logic is the inescapable truth that corporations are, as Patti Fry, chairwoman of the Menlo Park City Planning Commission admits, “in business to be in business.” [6]

For the past two decades, today’s technology juggernauts have been in business providing intangible service, “making the world more open and connected,” [7] or providing “the place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” [8] These places—cemented so firmly in our daily routine so as to become localities themselves—are providing the blueprint for the tangible production of the city. The most strident evangelists of corporation-led urbanity reference this digital track-record as a means of substantiating claims in the builtenvironment. Having first proved the merits of lean development, fast iteration, incessant metric-taking, and automation online, players like Google, Facebook, and Amazon hope to reproduce their success in the city. In this sense, the New American Company Town may simply be moving domains, from a virtual to a physical presence.

To understand what separates today’s technology company town from its lineage of predecessors at the turn of the twentieth-century, it is useful to compare them along similar lines:

For whom are they built? By whom are they built? What form, tangible and symbolic, do they take? Through what means, political and economic, are they realized? Finally, what goals, stated and concealed, are they formed to accomplish?

In the late 1800s, working-class labor was reeling from profound mistreatment in over-crowded, disease-ridden centercities. Writing in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Jacob Riis described the conditions of this lifestyle, where “[The worker] will never come out alive. There is no waste in these tenements. Lives, like clothes, are worn through and out before put aside.” [9] The work—although often inhumane and dangerous—was accessible to most able-bodies. Further, assembly-line technology required high quantities of de-skilled workers, practiced in a particular niche of the supply chain. In this context, the proposition of the company town ameliorated the intractable issues of the worker’s home life by applying the same scientific method used to devise the factory to the design of an infrastructure for living. The company town was an inevitable conclusion of the industrialists logic; a means of effectively storing content, healthy labor.

The company town was also actively refined by the demands of the workers themselves, who were buoyed by the increasing strength of labor unions. Access to fair housing became a primary recruiting tool for the benevolent industrialist, who recognized the profound returns, both economic and psychological, of providing housing for working families. In Good Homes Make Contented Workers published by the planning firm Industrial Housing Associates in 1919, this claim is made unabashedly clear: “The man owns his home but in a sense his home owns him… Get them to invest their savings in homes and own them. Then they won’t leave and they won’t strike. It ties them down so they have a stake in our prosperity.” [10]

Today, automation and machine learning has replaced low-skill laborer and compounded the success of a small group of knowledge-workers, [11] retooling the company town in the process. Instead of extending a basic promise of fair housing to laborers, the company town is now the ultimate perk for a population of workers used to the finest treatment. At Facebook in Menlo Park, employees eat for free at more than 24 restaurants, receive free massages, haircuts, pet-sitting, daycare, and transportation. [12] Still, in a county where the average home price recently hit $1.05 M, this treatment may not be able to compete with an outright housing shortage. [13] Between 2010 and 2015, the region created 367,000 jobs while building just 57,000 new homes. [14] Real estate in other american cities known for innovation is similarly skyrocketing, in places like Boston, New York, Austin, and Seattle. The new company town is the direct product of this context, positioned to capture the unique plight of the highlycompensated millennial tech worker.

Although the labor-subject has changed dramatically, the tactic of creating social structures within which patterns of corporate devotion are encouraged has not. High-wage technology workers do not struggle with access to basic housing, but multiple hour commutes, high costs of living, and a lack of easy socialization has created a context in which company housing is inevitable. If your employer is already washing your underwear, cutting your hair, walking your dog, and making you lunch, it is not a stretch to imagine them providing the town in which you live.

Writing for Harper’s Weekly in 1885, economist and author Richard T. Ely critiqued the utopian settlement of Pullman, Chicago, named for George Pullman’s Palace Car Company. “In looking over all the facts of the case the conclusion is unavoidable that the idea of Pullman is un-American. It is a nearer approach than anything the writer has seen to what appears to be the ideal of the great German Chancellor. It is not the American ideal. It is benevolent, well wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities.” [15]

Pullman is emblematic of the sort of paternal hubris that the company town has always exhibited. Reacting to worker unrest and social disorder in the city, Mr. Pullman initially appealed to workers by providing basic necessities that both the municipality and previous employers had proved incapable of providing. He defined his town in terms of the sin he had expelled, writing in a pamphlet at the 1892 World’s Columbian Exhibition that all should “visit the town… where all that is ugly and discordant and demoralizing is eliminated, and all that inspires to self respect, to thrift and to cleanliness of thought is generously provided.” [16]

As in other company towns at the time, such as Hershey, PA, and Kohler, WI, the reach of the benevolent dictatorship was omnipresent. In place of elected officials, the corporation was de facto the municipality. Without homeownership, the corporation was every workers landlord, owning the mechanism by which the worker might leave an atwill contract. [17] In lieu of police forces, company towns like Pullman had paid “inspectors,” charged with reporting any resident deemed to have undesirable attitudes or habits. [18] Occupying a space between corporate boss, political leader, and morale guide, industrialists like Pullman, Hershey, and Kohler’s outsized personalities ultimately led to the precipitous failure of their settlements.

The fortunes of these early industrialists pales in comparison to the wealth possessed by today’s richest technology CEOs. Rather than seek devotion through a cult-of-personality, though, figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos push their paternal influence downstream, to the body of the corporation. If the capitalists behind the first industrial revolution company towns were acknowledged father-figures, today’s leaders might better be described as the “fun uncle” with deep coffers.

This indifference to setting a strict collective agenda is more escapist than tolerant. It is in this context that a highly progressive office culture at Facebook— replete with 4 months maternity leave [19] and draft beer on tap—can permit the mining of 87 million unwitting users’ personal data. [20] At Google, where the agenda of its parent company Alphabet is so all-encompassing that its actual corporate motto is “Do the Right Thing,” [21] the specifics of this morality are impossible to pin down, and include listening in unannounced on your every conversation. [22] These transgressions may come from simple economic greed, or, they may come from the same holierthan-thou underpinnings of yesterday’s industrialists—a belief that they know, better than you, what will make your world a better place. As purveyors of the next generation of company towns, today’s technology leadership may be more dangerous than benevolent dictatorship, trending instead towards indifferent self-obsession.

In 1859, Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin began the construction of the Familistere in Guise, a model society for the employees of his iron stove factory modelled on the work of utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Fourier and Godin imagined an organization of a phalanx, or 1500 individuals, working together to sustain and operate spacious housing, free education, healthcare, and leisure facilities. Each member worked for a share in the company town and participated in a governing system of direct-democracy. [23]

The architecture of the Familistere is a spatial inscription of this social agenda; in Godin’s words, a “temple for the religion of life and work.” [24] Family units surround a central interior courtyard, left empty, to be negotiated by all surrounding units. Access to amenities, such as a a public school, theater, bathing complex, and gardens, is available to all, but pushed away from this central gathering space. A short walk across a narrow body of water, the factory itself formed a separate complex. [25]

The Familistere is a highly hierarchical space, prioritizing the negotiation of a shared space. Pivotally, though, this space is lacking any amenity whatsoever. It is an empty room, to which you would only go to enjoy the company—and inevitable surveillance—of your peers. It is a space of pure, uninflected socialization. In today’s city, urban open-space such as this, without commercial amenity or political posturing, is non-existent.

In 2013, Facebook submitted plans for a recently realized $120 M, 394 unit housing community within walking distance of its Menlo Park offices. [26] Called Anton Menlo, the 630,000 square foot rental property borrows, and ultimately undermines, many of the same formal logics of the Familistere. Similarly hierarchical, Anton Menlo organizes all 394 units within an outer perimeter of parking and around a central gathering place. Far from a non-descript void, though, this center is full of amenities, including a pool, spa, restaurant and sports bar, doggy-day care, bocce ball court, fitness studio, and rooftop “sky lounge.” [27] On its Facebook page, Anton Menlo advertises itself as “the perfect abode for the tech savvy worker who is accustomed to all-inclusive luxuries.” [28] If the Familistere was designed to encourage the production of the socialist subject and cooperative worker, Anton Menlo has been configured to produce the knowledgeworker that lacks any responsibility to others and is saddled by a dependency on the “all-inclusive luxuries” Facebook provides.

The company town has routinely been able to make this dependency a spatial phenomenon, repackaging isolation as retreat and segregation from the city as a bucolic ideal. Examples like the Familistere, Pullman, Chicago, and New Harmony, Indiana all recreate the imagery of pastoral beauty while manufacturing an urban center. Similarly, Google’s planned development in Mountain View, CA, emphasizes easy access to miles of nature trails, and Facebook’s planned Willow Village is rendered as a lush play-space, hyper-green and decidedly suburban. This abdication from the surrounding city is made more evident by the terms with which Anton Menlo defines itself. To enjoy flowering trees, fountains, and lawn chairs, tenants visit “The Quad.” To play bocce ball, pool, or use the BBQ pits, residents flock to “the backyard.” [29] Within the six foot lot wall of Facebook’s compound, Anton Menlo creates specific references to suburban domesticity, leveraging a prior conception of the American worker’s dream to substantiate their own. By removing itself from the context of the city, if only symbolically, the company town is able to define itself on its own terms: a prosperous oasis washed of the complexities of the city.

If today’s company towns are in fact evidence of a higher quality of life, as they profess to be, the uninformed visitor might never know. From the outside, these compounds—some built and others only planned—adopt the same California brand of developer-banal, stucco and terra-cotta faced low-rise construction. Material, texture, and scale are casualties of form-based code that stipulates a particular “human scale.” Equally as hermetic as their predecessors, the contemporary company town lacks any grandiose overtures or architectural freedoms. The Familistere was a fantastical coupling of the monastery and Versailles—a bonafide “People’s Palace.” [30] Pullman, Chicago, leveraged the social stature of the Victorian aesthetic to underscore its claims to a higher moral order. The contemporary company town seems unwilling to claim an aesthetic agenda—an entirely fitting conclusion, given that today’s companies, in contrast to the industrialists before them, have lost the desire to coax workers towards an image of an ideal citizen. 

If there is any vestige of the architectural agenda present in early company towns, it has been transplanted to the contemporary office. What was once a glorified domestic sphere, as in the central void of the Familistere, has transitioned to the soaring ceilings and grand open floor plans of the office space. While at work, a Facebook, Google, or Amazon employee might cycle, knit, meditate, play pool, watch TV, or fall asleep. An acceptable branding image of the “startup office” (a misnomer for all of these tech giants) might include anything, as long as it doesn’t look like work. The contemporary company town has swapped the grandeur of the carefully designed home life and banal factory floor for the Frank Gehry designed office-play-space and cookiecutter condominiums. Buoyed by the easy transgression of the internet on all forms of private, technology-free life, the company town has entirely blurred the lines of working from home and being at blissfully at home at work.

In establishing the communitarian society of New Harmony, Indiana, the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen purchased an existing religious community, called “The Harmony Society,” from the one-thousand German immigrants who formed it. [31] Owen routinely traveled to New York, Boston, and Washington D.C., speaking twice in the Hall of Representatives to espouse his critical view of revealed religion, marriage and the traditional family, and private property. Owen never required the intervention of existing public entities, and instead leveraged them only to display his particular vision, going so far as to leave the models and drawings for the uncompleted construction of New Harmony on display at the White House.

In the Silicon Valley today, both Facebook and Google are transitioning from comfortable isolation to bloated entities that must negotiate with public institutions. The new company town requires high-value labor that tends to attract itself: the area has become more innovation-dense, spawning institutions and offshoot companies that compound the labor-value of the existing city. In order to capitalize and recruit this labor, the company town must ingratiate itself by building housing and infrastructure.

Facebook’s 56-acre project in Menlo Park (referred to locally as Zucktown or Facebookville), will provide 1,500 units, 225 at below-market rate. [32] Facebook admits that the vast majority of the housing will be occupied by Facebook employees, who will enjoy a five-figure bonus if they elect to live near the office. [33] The social network has portrayed the 10-year project as a gift to Menlo Park, with whom they have a “long-term commitment” and want to partner with in order to provide a “safe and inclusive environment for the people who call this city home.” [34] Residents of neighboring East Palo Alto, where the median income is $55,000 compared to $126,000 in Menlo Park, are not convinced. [35]

In 2017, Menlo Park agreed to allow Facebook to pay for an additional police station to patrol the Facebook campus and surrounding area. During deliberations at City Hall, East Palo Alto activist JT Faraji stated the obvious: “Instead of being beholden to the public, public servants will now be beholden to a private company.” [36] While East Palo Alto continues to rapidly gentrify, Facebook has extended several peace offerings, including a $75,000 grant to Belle Haven Action in January 2018, an East Palo Alto community advocacy group that is actively working to bring attention to Facebook’s negative impact on the area. [37] In the muddied political waters of Menlo Park, this philanthropy is overt corporate lobbying. Facebook’s “good-will” is already converting to political might, an easy feat in a municipality where a few hundred votes alters the composition of the city council.

In Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Seattle, Boston, and other technology hotbeds, a mantra of “working with the community” has translated to hostile takeovers, where the wealth-resources of the city are commandeered at the expense of all workers outside of Big Tech. In the aftermath of Milton Friedman’s claim that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” [38] the half-hearted benevolence of today’s technology giants in the twentieth century is particularly poignant. The Silicon Valley is learning that “corporate responsibility” is a contradiction in terms, and the new company towns may be primed to simply expand further.

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, more vendors were selling products for the “Smart City” than gaming products or drones. [39] In the words of Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, “[The] hypothesis is that a combination of technologies... can fundamentally alter nearly every dimension of quality of life in an urban environment.” [40] Technology start-ups have trained their efforts on everything from applying artificial intelligence to optimize city operations [41] to developing 3D models of buildings from amateur photography. [42] It is an uncommon story—a sort of digital manifest destiny—that has carried the Silicon Valley from its naval-gasing roots to the self-proclaimed position of urban visionary.

As the history of the company town evidences, the profound optimism implicit in developments like Sidewalk Lab’s 12-acre Quayside project in Toronto is not unprecedented. What is uncommon, though, is the implication that past digital success can be parlayed to the built environment. More disconcerting still, is the fact that Google’s online presence— and intended modus operandi in Toronto—leverages a free SaaS (Software as a Service) model, where the cost of participating in the digitized urban sphere will be difficult to parse, but undoubtedly present.

The new company town may have successfully eradicated its need to satisfy the everyday laborer, moving instead towards the pursuit of the high-value knowledge worker. It has, though, found a means of recuperating the lost value that access to the common-man once provided. The “Smart City,” foreshadowed by Toronto’s Quayside development, is a newfound means for the company town to put the average citizen to work, acquiring vast amounts of data from everyday experience that ultimately funnels value back to the corporation.

This is not the intended public perspective. Data, in the eyes of Google and other technology giants, is the new “commons,” a wealth of value that must be shared. If the utopian socialist company towns of New Harmony and the Familistere legislated the sharing of property, domestic labor, and economic production, the new company town would like to impose the universal sharing of information. Immediately, the intangibility of this proposition poses societal risk: information is slippery, imperceptible, and scales geometrically. Property, buildings, and even physical labor are fungible, dumb, but secure. The move towards a digital commons has largely been pushed by technology corporations, who have introduced products that have gradually increased our tolerance to divulge information while breaking consumer trust on the back-end.

Of course, the world looks a little different when you have 3.5 billion daily customers. [43] And while it is difficult to know the precise ambition of the technology bronze who are leading the current march into the design of the built environment, it is an almost certainty that it parrots the desires of past industrialists, who through some mixture of financial greed and self-righteousness produced tenets of the company town that we are still unable to escape.

The new company town will be made for the knowledge-worker but it will profit from the labor of every citizen. It will be manufactured by today’s visionary technology juggernauts and will take the form of compounds that attach to cities that struggle under their might. It will be achieved through commandeering political clout in local politics while obfuscating the demands of existing communities. Ultimately, the new company town will be installed in order to transfer digital success to the built environment. It will be a new home for an old Silicon Valley adage: “If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold.” [44] The new company town will be this space for our own production.

1. Kevin Kelly, “Menlo Park: Facebook’s workforce will equal city’s population,” The San Jose Mercury News, March 1, 2018.

2. Louis Hansen, “Google’s massive housing and office plan wins approval,” The San Jose Mercury News, December 12, 2017.

3. Nick Wingfield and Patricia Cohen, “Amazon Plans Second Headquarters, Opening a Bidding War Among Cities,” The New York Times, September 7, 2017.

4. Michele Lent Hirsch, “America’s Company Towns, Then and Now,” Smithsonian Magazine. September 4, 2015.

5. Adora Cheung, “New Cities,” Y Combinator Blog, June 27, 2016.

6. David Streitfeld, “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything is Just Zucky.” The New York Times, March 21, 2018.

7. Facebook, Inc. “Form S-1 Registration Statement,” United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Washington D.C., February 1, 2012.

8., Inc. “Form 10- K,” The United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Washington D.C., December 31, 2002.

9. Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Garrett Press, 1970), 144.

10. Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981), 284.

11. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).

12. Luke Stangel, “Google and Facebook are building the ultimate perk: housing,” Medium, November 14, 2017.

13. Hansen, “Google’s massive housing and office plan wins approval.”

14. Ibid.

15. Richard T. Ely, “Pullman: A Social Study.” Harper’s Magazine 70 (February 1885): 452-466.

16. Jane Eva Baxter, “The Paradox of a Capitalist Utopia: Visionary Ideals and Lived Experience in the Pullman Community 1880- 1900,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2012, 651-665.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. “Facebook,”, April 2017.

20. Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users,” The New York Times, April 4, 2018.

21. Justin Wm. Moyer, “Alphabet, now Google’s overlord, ditches ‘Don’t be evil’ for ‘do the right thing,’” The Washington Post, October 5, 2015.

22. Sapna Maheshwari, “Hey, Alexa, What Can you Hear? And What Will You Do With It?” The New York Times, March 31, 2018.

23. Charles Fourier, “Selections Describing the Phalanstery” in The Utopia Reader, ed. Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 193.

24. M.B., “Should we retain the right to feel unhappy at work?” The Economist, May 25, 2016.

25. “The Familistere at Guise, France,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 71, November 1885.

26. City of Menlo Park, “Study Session for Compliance Review/St. Anton Partners/3605-3639 Haven Avenue,” October 7, 2013.

27. Anton Menlo, “Amenities,” https:// www.antonmenlo. com/amenities/.

28. “Anton Menlo Apartments,” Facebook Group, Accessed May 11, 2018.

29. City of Menlo Park, “Study Session for Compliance Review, St. Anton Partners.”

30. “The Familistere at Guise, France,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 71, November 1885.

31. Donald F. Carmony and Josephine M. Elliott, “New Harmony, Indiana: Robert Owen’s Seedbed for Utopia,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 76, No. 3, Septmeber 1980, 161-261.

32. City of Menlo Park, “Facebook Willow Village Master Plan,” July 6, 2017.

33. Streitfeld, “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything is Just Zucky.”

34. Queenie Wong, “Menlo Park, East Palo Alto residents rally against Facebook, Amazon amid gentrification concerns,” The San Jose Mercury News, April 6, 2017.

35., “East Palo Alto,” and “Menlo Park.”

36. Kate Bradshaw, “Menlo Park council supports Facebookfunded police unit,” The Almanac, May 3, 2017.

37. Streitfeld, “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything is Just Zucky.”

38. Milton Friedman, “A Friednzan Doctrine,” The New York Times, September 13, 1970.

39. Laura Bliss, “When a Tech Giant Plays Waterfront Developer,” CityLab, January 9, 2018.

40. Dan Doctoroff, “Dan Doctoroff on how we’ll realize the promise of urban innovation,” McKinsey & Comapny, January 2018.

41. “Qucit: About Us,”

42. “About: Hosta Labs,”

43. “Google Search Statistics,” internetlivestats. com.

44. Andrew Lewis, “@Andlewis,” Twitter, September 13, 2010