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A Ghost Town is born
June 19, 2011 8:15 PM   Subscribe

"I had to stand in front of 92 people and say 'Not only do you not have a job anymore, you don't have a house anymore'". On June 20th, the United States Gypsum Corporation will shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, the last Company town in America.
posted by MattMangels (73 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Amazingly, it's on Street View.
posted by desjardins at 8:25 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also, here's the original article instead of the Yahoo-branded version, with a photo gallery.
posted by desjardins at 8:27 PM on June 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is so saddening. I've walked through old Welsh quarry villages and can imagine what this place will feel like in a few months.
posted by arcticseal at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been to the Black Rock Desert area and thus can actually picture this place. So sad.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:35 PM on June 19, 2011


Amazingly, it's on Street View.

Wow, as shitty as I imagined a company town would be.
posted by dave78981 at 8:35 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The folks who make their homes in Empire are one big happy family," the magazine reported....

In...2001... bankruptcy... followed personal injury claims related to asbestos exposure, totaling millions of dollars.... [T]he company emerged and regained profitability, leaving Empire unscathed."


Oh yes, this reminds me of the time my mom exposed me to asbestos and declared bankruptcy to avoid helping with my hospital bills. Fortunately, she quickly regained profitability, leaving our family happiness unscathed. Good times.
posted by salvia at 8:36 PM on June 19, 2011 [45 favorites]


Wow, I've been to Empire, and I actually know the author of that article. She's really not kidding - there is nothing for miles in any direction. No houses, no businesses, no farms, just a lot of sagebrush desert.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:37 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


See the Free Market efficiently determined that wallboard isn't in demand, and so the Free Market efficiently shut down the town so that its only remaining valuable resources, its workers, were compelled -- without any big government czars inefficiently meddling in the process -- to relocate at their own expense to places where they could sell their labor to the Free Market.

Yes, a community of decades standing was sundered and scattered to the winds, human relationships were abruptly ended, but that's a good thing, because those sentimentalities are really inefficiencies for Business.

Truly this is an inspirational story for investors and other rentiers, the triumph of the Free Market over inefficient human scruples.

Let us bow our heads in thanks: There is no God but the Free Market, and Ayn Rand is its Prophet!
posted by orthogonality at 8:38 PM on June 19, 2011 [45 favorites]


Wow, as shitty as I imagined a company town would be.

That's pretty harsh. Don't get out of the city much?
posted by dibblda at 8:38 PM on June 19, 2011


Would it be naive of me to assume that the citizens of this town, seeing as they live in company houses (which, presumably, means very low rent, if there's any rent at all) and having nothing to spend their money on, would have enormous savings accounts, and will do okay after this?
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:38 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sure all the people with toxic Chinese drywall will be glad to know they can only buy imported now.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:39 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Workers Of The World, Unite.

Seriously. Unite. We outnumber them, and we have the power, if only we're willing to step up and claim it.
posted by hippybear at 8:39 PM on June 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


Wow, as shitty as I imagined a company town would be.

It's about as nice a town as you could expect out there. Look at Main Street in neighboring Gerlach for comparison. The place is pretty good just having functional buildings with walls and roofs; the fact that it has trees and grass, too, is some kind of economic miracle.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:42 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


It looks a LOT better than places like Red Mountain or neighboring Johannesburg, both of which are old mining towns.
posted by dibblda at 8:42 PM on June 19, 2011


List of American company towns.
posted by John Cohen at 8:46 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am stunned that they are just leaving the town to fall apart. Why on earth aren't they reclaiming the materials and sending them to Habitat for Humanity or something along those lines?
posted by acoutu at 8:48 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Drive through the backroads of Pennsylvania, you'll see a hundred of these.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:50 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why on earth aren't they reclaiming the materials and sending them to Habitat for Humanity or something along those lines?

*gives perplexed look*

... You're new around here, aren't ya?

*shakes head to clear it of bizarre foreign ideas*
posted by salvia at 8:53 PM on June 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


So per Wikipedia, if this town is closed down (I can't even fathom what that means, really), then the last remaining company-town under US control is actually Bagdad

(No, not that one; this doesn't have a 'h', and is in Arizona.)
posted by the cydonian at 8:54 PM on June 19, 2011


Would it be naive of me to assume that the citizens of this town, seeing as they live in company houses (which, presumably, means very low rent, if there's any rent at all) and having nothing to spend their money on, would have enormous savings accounts, and will do okay after this?

From the article: "Here, you could rent a company-owned home for $250 a month, or an apartment for as little as $110."

I was actually surprised to read this; I would have thought that, since there isn't non-company housing, they'd rip people off.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:54 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]



Yes, a community of decades standing was sundered and scattered to the winds, human relationships were abruptly ended, but that's a good thing, because those sentimentalities are really inefficiencies for Business.


What is the alternative? Should this town be propped up simply for the sake of propping it up? Anybody who lived in that town and thought this could never happen is a fool.


Workers Of The World, Unite.

Seriously. Unite. We outnumber them, and we have the power, if only we're willing to step up and claim it.


WTF? What in the world would this accomplish for the town of Empire? The place is a desolate hole in the middle of nowhere. Even a smart central planning committee would mothball the place. Or are company towns now a good idea?


It looks a LOT better than places like Red Mountain or neighboring Johannesburg, both of which are old mining towns.


It's been a long time since Red Mountain was anything resembling a town. Johannesburg (and neighboring Randsburg) aren't that bad, though. The small mining claim fueled local economy is long dried up, but those towns actually seem more alive now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. While they are in the middle of nowhere, they aren't also at the dead end, like Empire is.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:59 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


hippybear: "Seriously. Unite. We outnumber them, and we have the power, if only we're willing to step up and claim it."

Yea, because what we really need right now is more drywall for homes. I don't like company towns at all, and I celebrate this one's demise, but what would you have these people do? Where do you squeeze the blood from this turnip?
posted by pwnguin at 8:59 PM on June 19, 2011


Wow, as shitty as I imagined a company town would be.

That's pretty harsh. Don't get out of the city much?


You're right, it was a little harsh. And actually, the city I don't get out of much is pretty shitty and run down too. But you gotta admit, there really isn't much there. They took a patch of desolate desert land and built some houses on it. In the end, it's still just a desolate patch of desert.
posted by dave78981 at 9:04 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Folks here may or may not know that Empire is very close to the site of Burning Man. The nearby town of Gerlach is the true gateway to the festival, but the two towns are very tightly linked. Both towns have had an interesting relationship with the festival; at times wary of the annual swarm of outsiders, but over time (I gather) coming to tolerate it, and in some cases find a way to profit from it. The BM organization also tries to support the local communities -- for example, donating funds to the local school.

Commentary on this story from an email list I'm on suggests that the Burning Man festival (which operates year-round locally in some way) may now likely the Gerlach-Empire region's largest employer. Without Empire the survival of Gerlach is in doubt; one local says the number of school-age children this fall will drop from seventy-five to seven. I heard elsewhere on the email list that there will be twelve students this fall and three employees at the Gerlach school -- reduced from 30.

There are rumors that a mining operation called Hycroft that owns a mine near Sulphur, NV (a ghost town) might buy or lease Empire for staff housing. Such an action might rescue Gerlach, but I don't know how or whether this deal would affect the departing current residents of Empire.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:12 PM on June 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


I don't like company towns at all, and I celebrate this one's demise

Some of them are not all that bad, Hershey, PA is after all the sweetest place on earth.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:14 PM on June 19, 2011


Workers Of The World, Unite.

Seriously. Unite. We outnumber them, and we have the power, if only we're willing to step up and claim it.

WTF? What in the world would this accomplish for the town of Empire? The place is a desolate hole in the middle of nowhere. Even a smart central planning committee would mothball the place. Or are company towns now a good idea?


Seriously. Unite against what? They are shutting down, there is no work. The town was built for and existed only to mine gypsum. The business was unprofitable as it was, how do you think that forming a union would make the business profitable enough to sustain the town?
posted by gjc at 9:14 PM on June 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Drive through the backroads of Pennsylvania, you'll see a hundred of these.

Yeah, whenever a totally run down town appears on MetaFilter or really any other web community, a tiny voice in the back of my head thinks, "Most towns in the US are exactly like this."
posted by byanyothername at 9:15 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, whenever a totally run down town appears on MetaFilter or really any other web community, a tiny voice in the back of my head thinks, "Most towns in the US are exactly like this."

Yeah, but that doesn't mean most people live in such towns. The run down towns have less people in them.

</math>
posted by madcaptenor at 9:17 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


>> Unite. We outnumber them, and we have the power, if only we're willing to step up and claim it.

> What in the world would this accomplish for the town of Empire?


I don't run a resource extraction business, so all I have are theoretical examples, but a theoretical idea in the case of Empire would be for the workers to cooperatively purchase the plant itself, together tighten their belt to get through this slow patch, (maybe by getting second jobs at that gold mine or whatever), then slowly ramp up production again as demand recovered. (This obviously would have worked better if they had started the business together or purchased it during better economic times.)

A similar theoretical example, now thinking of lumber towns, a collectively-owned timber operation that sustainably harvested the trees at a rate that supported the long-term sustainability of the forest as well as the business would preserve the local community better than having a corporate timber multinational pay people to cut down the big trees as fast as possible, then moving operations to another continent that still has big forests.

I'm painting with a broad brush here, certainly, but I'm just trying to advance the discussion by providing a narrative in which a unified approach would be both feasible and desirable. And not to sound too hippy-dippy, but I do tend to think that if people who are directly affected worked together, shared the ups and downs, and made decisions to support the long-term health of their community -- instead of a situation in which a company headquarters located elsewhere made decisions based on profitabilty to shareholders -- then the decisions would be better in many ways.
posted by salvia at 9:23 PM on June 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


Hippybear said workers of the world unite, not workers of US Gypsum in Empire, NV unite. The problem with that is that workers in the US have been brainwashed into despising themselves by the likes of Fox News, Paul Ryan, and the Koch brothers. If you're not rich in post Reagan America, you're parasitic scum.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:53 PM on June 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


Some of them are not all that bad, Hershey, PA is after all the sweetest place on earth.

Hershey's chocolate tastes like baby vomit.
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:59 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hershey's chocolate tastes like baby vomit.

Now that's a sentence I certainly didn't expect to see in the thread when I posted this.
posted by MattMangels at 10:13 PM on June 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


Such situation may be make US just like what is happening in Greece.
posted by LauraWinson at 10:15 PM on June 19, 2011


The town was built for and existed only to mine gypsum. The business was unprofitable as it was, how do you think that forming a union would make the business profitable enough to sustain the town?

Precisely, but considering the fact that the need for gypsum, whilst presently decreased, is still large the question is one of competitive advantage. Why was this plant not able to be profitable with regard to it competitors in other states or other countries?

One needs to fairly examine the entire cost model before drawing conclusions. What was the cost of things driven by liberal desires: environmental compliance? Worker safety? Liability insurance? Were these costs reasonable?

I would be OK with a conclusion, for example, that the cost of not polluting the rivers makes this plant unprofitable over another which does. My ire however would be directed towards the government policy that permits "free trade" with a country which does allow such things.
posted by three blind mice at 10:20 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hey so, posting from China here.

I can't say that I like to see the relationships and jobs and economies and established ways of life and traditions that rise up with a village go, but I have to say that when it does go, people find ways to survive. The countryside in this nation has been gutted, and continues to be, but the thing is, people can and do move on. One book I read, Wooden City, was about precisely this, with the villagers from one town remaking their lives in the suburbs of a neighboring metropolis. And they did okay for themselves. Yes it was fiction, but I've met people in the south of Beijing who indicate that people from a particular region/village take over entire apartment blocks and neighborhoods, and they make a living all the same, latching on to some industry. They're all waiters, or bra merchants, or halogen wholesalers, or whatever industry the first of them got into was. Then they got all their friends and relatives from the village involved.

The thing is, it's creative destruction. If a community was there to begin with, rather than a bunch of people trapped with no other way out, it can and will coalesce somewhere else. And isn't that what matters in the end? The preservation and continuance of those relationships? That is the lifeblood of human society, and it will continue. In the article, it said many of them already found new jobs at neighboring mines. They were gypsum miners, now they're gold miners. Well, sure, this community is scattered, but it's reforming in another place, and new ties and industries and stories will be born from that. We as a species exist to make those connections. They'll be okay. So will Burning Man (you just wait 'til that lady with the store prints up fliers explaining what's up with her town and begging for business to keep the store running. She'll get so many Burning Man sympathizers she'll have a new location on-site and an exclusive supply contract with Burning Man that'll make her silly rich). So will Gerlach. And good luck to them all.
posted by saysthis at 10:30 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


... another fallen Empire ...
posted by Afroblanco at 10:39 PM on June 19, 2011


Some of them are not all that bad, Hershey, PA is after all the sweetest place on earth.

Does Hershey-the-company own all of the grocery stores and stuff there, too?
posted by rhizome at 10:51 PM on June 19, 2011


On the bright side, we're building fewer walls.
posted by Camofrog at 10:52 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gosh, I see now it IS easy to know what the people of that town should do based on reading an internet article, while sitting comfortably behind a computer terminal a world away. Why didn't the people of that town come to Metafilter for help in the first place?
posted by happyroach at 11:33 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine said that she knew this town because it's somewhat near Burning Man.

Perhaps it will be acquired by Burners, and then who knows what will happen to it. Buildings covered in shag carpet that drive around, I guess.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:48 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does Hershey-the-company own all of the grocery stores and stuff there, too?

Once upon a time they probably did, the key difference between company towns on the east coast and company towns in the desert is population density. Hershey is 8 miles from Harrisburg, Centralia is 14 miles from Scranton. Since the invention of the automobile it doesn't matter who owns the stores in Hershey, just drive 8 miles to Costco. These folks are in the ass end of nowhere.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:55 PM on June 19, 2011


I would be OK with a conclusion, for example, that the cost of not polluting the rivers makes this plant unprofitable over another which does. My ire however would be directed towards the government policy that permits "free trade" with a country which does allow such things.

My thoughts exactly. I don't think screwing your workers health or polluting your drinking water should be a competitive advantage and would like to see a tariff to eliminate this.

I have a suspicion that if this was done American industry would be seen as much more competitive.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:12 AM on June 20, 2011


there are any number of company towns in Australia, all associated with mining. I have a friend who works in Leigh Creek servicing the nearby coal mine. It's nice enough, a bit boring perhaps, only 80km from the nearest pub.
posted by wilful at 12:13 AM on June 20, 2011


Yeah, can't Larry Harvey buy it and call it Burning Village or something?
posted by mrhappy at 12:18 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of them are not all that bad, Hershey, PA is after all the sweetest place on earth.

Screw Hershey.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:22 AM on June 20, 2011


...the last Company town in America.

Wait...how about Avery Island, home of Tabasco?
posted by hal_c_on at 12:25 AM on June 20, 2011


Not all of these...but there are STILL some company towns left.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:27 AM on June 20, 2011



Hippybear said workers of the world unite, not workers of US Gypsum in Empire, NV unite.


Ok, that makes sense. Waitaminute... Again, What in the world would this accomplish for the town of Empire?


I don't run a resource extraction business, so all I have are theoretical examples


Theoretical, indeed!


I would be OK with a conclusion, for example, that the cost of not polluting the rivers makes this plant unprofitable over another which does. My ire however would be directed towards the government policy that permits "free trade" with a country which does allow such things.


I'm pretty sure that USG still manufactures drywall at other sites in the US. Does your ire extend to free trade with other States?

What strikes me in this thread is that nobody really knows the particular reasons why Empire will be shut down. Though the news article suggests a pretty straightforward reason. Yet there seems an irresistible urge to use this misfortune to draw equally uninformed, even grandiose, conclusions about USG, free trade, sustainable business practices, labor, etc. And more amusingly, bemoan the demise of a company town, a relic of that evil Randian free market model we love to hate.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:28 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


a theoretical idea in the case of Empire would be for the workers to cooperatively purchase the plant itself, together tighten their belt to get through this slow patch ... then slowly ramp up production again as demand recovered

It worked for ACIPCO. (Well, the workers didn't buy it, the founder, upon his death, willed the company to a worker-run trust. But anyway.) I don't think they have a school or worker housing any more, but they do still have a medical clinic for employees and their families (free), they have excellent benefits, tuition assistance, and a retirement package second only to the railroads in their heyday. They don't have a particularly laudable environmental safety record, but they are an otherwise outstanding corporate citizen. The executives don't make big heaps of dough. The guys on the shop floors make a decent wage. They have an outstanding safety record. God forbid you observe that they're essentially run like a socialist collective, though! They're a good Christian business!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:04 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that USG still manufactures drywall at other sites in the US. Does your ire extend to free trade with other States?

It would depend on the reason that plants in other states enjoy competitive advantage? Has a plant in, say, Texas been given massive tax breaks and subsidized utilities? If so then I would think that this is unhelpful government interference.
posted by three blind mice at 2:19 AM on June 20, 2011


Oh yes, this reminds me of the time my mom exposed me to asbestos and declared bankruptcy to avoid helping with my hospital bills. Fortunately, she quickly regained profitability, leaving our family happiness unscathed. Good times.

Yes, it would actually kind of be like that, except that the bankruptcy in quest was Chapter 11 (similar to Chapter 13 for individuals), which allows a company to keep operating while resolving issues with creditors rather than simply going out of business entirely. So this would be more like your mom filing for Chapter 13 relief while you were sick so that she could keep a house over your head and food in your mouths and then going back to work and dealing with the debt.

Of course, taking a few seconds to determine that's the type of bankruptcy in question is a lot less fun that firing off a flippant comment.

I don't run a resource extraction business, so all I have are theoretical examples, but a theoretical idea in the case of Empire would be for the workers to cooperatively purchase the plant itself, together tighten their belt to get through this slow patch, (maybe by getting second jobs at that gold mine or whatever), then slowly ramp up production again as demand recovered.

I've been there. Without a major corporation backing the facility, I can't see the local area being compelling enough to cause the workers to want to risk their life savings to try to keep the place going, even if that was an option. It's not just desolate but often harsh.

But suggesting that people there could simply get a second job at the gold mine (or "whatever") reflects a lack of understanding of resource extraction, which you admitted but would be really helpful in understanding whether such an operation is viable or not, economics, and the region.
posted by Candleman at 2:37 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is incidentally the same reason that we need universal public healthcare, to disassociate people's ability to receive medical care from their to get a job and work. Lot of people in America who want a different job but cannot leave their current one because to do so would begin a life of healthcare debt slavery.
posted by X-Himy at 3:18 AM on June 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


I was in the construction supply industry for twenty five years. Although I worked primarily in the lumber sector, I've bought and sold my share of drywall.

My observation is this: The "free-market" system had at least a part in selling these people out.

Drywall is a cheap product. It is a small-profit, large-volume business. There is absolutely no logical way that drywall could be manufactured in China, shipped (literally) here, distributed to wholesalers, and then sold competitively to builders without a lot of people looking the other way in the human-rights area. Profit uber alles.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:50 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


bemoan the demise of a company town, a relic of that evil Randian free market model we love to hate.

Most of us live our lives swimming in currents that are bigger than us. The lives we make may not be our dream lives, but within those compromises we might manage to build something we love and value.

If those currents shift and rock the little niche you have made for yourself and your family, the pain you feel is not a misguided loyalty to your corporate master, but fear that the little you have in the world that you really love might be torn apart as greater forces remake themselves about you.
posted by compound eye at 4:57 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am stunned that they are just leaving the town to fall apart. Why on earth aren't they reclaiming the materials and sending them to Habitat for Humanity or something along those lines?

Doing that costs money.
posted by palbo at 5:16 AM on June 20, 2011


They took a patch of desolate desert land and built some houses on it. In the end, it's still just a desolate patch of desert.


See also: Los Angeles.
posted by Herodios at 5:45 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


See the Free Market efficiently determined that wallboard isn't in demand...

Stop here...don't even bother tobring up the human cost of this as the machines that make decisions like this might be built from people who are all real morose about the thing but the machine itself doesn't have that option. The real problem is that in 5 or 10 years, when wallboard is back in demand, no one in their right mind is going to move into Godforsaken hellhole USA to mine gypsum and make it into drywall, without being paid an insane amount knowing they could end up in the desert with no income and no home. So you end up having to pay them a lot, or you get people who wouldn't normally trust to mop your Taco Bell. Yay efficiency!

It's like me waking up in the morning and after the wife and I finish in the bathroom, gutting it because "Hey, I don't have to go. You don't have to go. This is just space we're WASTING!" A few hours later, after I'm good and thirsty and put down about a gallon of iced tea (because demolishing a room is thirsty work) I'm going to have a real problem.

The fundamental flaw with central economies is that no one can really come up with a meaningful five year plan. The fundamental flaw with free market capitalism is that no one even bothers to try.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:03 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


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

posted by Herodios at 6:06 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would it be naive of me to assume that the citizens of this town, seeing as they live in company houses (which, presumably, means very low rent, if there's any rent at all) and having nothing to spend their money on, would have enormous savings accounts, and will do okay after this?

Depends how much they were paid. $250 for rent sounds small, unless they were only earning $300 a week, say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on June 20, 2011


Precisely, but considering the fact that the need for gypsum, whilst presently decreased, is still large the question is one of competitive advantage. Why was this plant not able to be profitable with regard to it competitors in other states or other countries?


Eh. I'm surprised this plant lasted as long as it did actually. Pretty much every new plant built in the last few decades functionally gets free gypsum rather than mining it like they did in empire. Gypsum is a by-productt of coal power plant emissions scrubbers. China has nothing do with it, except during the very peak of the bubble, and Benny Andajetz said, its not economic to put it on a ship. Older wallboard plants are fundamentally at a cost disadvantage, and really can't be fixed.

Oh yes, this reminds me of the time my mom exposed me to asbestos and declared bankruptcy to avoid helping with my hospital bills. Fortunately, she quickly regained profitability, leaving our family happiness unscathed. Good times.

I know this is cool fuck the corporations snark and all, but this really isn't what happens when companies file as a result of asbestos claims. In the case of USG in their second bankruptcy they put at 4 billion USD in trust to pay claimants. Cite
posted by JPD at 7:22 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


My nephew lives in Thompson, Manitoba, where the mine is far and away the largest employer. Housing is expensive there, and so is everything else, because it all has to be transported. You make a lot of money (KFC pays $18/hr) but don't get to keep much of it. When Luke first moved there a year and a half ago, he had planned to buy a fixer upper and sell it for a profit when he left. He'd just picked out a house for about $200K when he heard the mine planned to shut down a good part of its operations in a few years, so he rented instead. I hate to think what will happen to that town when the mine closes. The people who came there just to work and who rented will be fine, but the people who bought homes and have put down roots — or who are even native to the area — will be completely screwed.
posted by orange swan at 7:23 AM on June 20, 2011


Gerlach? Empire? The sense of isolation in these places is really amazing. I don't know if it can properly be expressed if you haven't actually been there. It's the kind of thing where it may be literally impossible for you to save enough money to transport yourself to the next nearest civilized location.
posted by odinsdream at 7:24 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why on earth aren't they reclaiming the materials and sending them to Habitat for Humanity or something along those lines?
I don't think the materials that go into a standard house are what make them expensive. It would probably cost a fortune to tear all that stuff down and transport it.
posted by delmoi at 7:35 AM on June 20, 2011


"Last company town..."

Um, no, not really. Certainly only for some narrow definition. There are plenty of locales in the US that are essentially special economic zones where workers pay some entity that eventually is backed up by the only corp in town.

Many resource and energy based towns are company towns by any reasonably definition of the term. As in, a worker has little recourse when the corp changes policy or downsizes you out of your double-wide.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:46 AM on June 20, 2011


I don't think the materials that go into a standard house are what make them expensive. It would probably cost a fortune to tear all that stuff down and transport it.

Not to mention, again, that you may not really understand fully without visiting this place: Nothing there is worth salvaging.
posted by odinsdream at 7:51 AM on June 20, 2011


Original Christian Science Monitor link. (Oh yeah, the Yahoo version is one page ...)

It's about as nice a town as you could expect out there. Look at Main Street in neighboring Gerlach for comparison.

Gerlach live webcam. They have (some) trees and grass too, but yeah, as someone noted, without Empire, there's not much to Gerlach.

Why on earth aren't they reclaiming the materials and sending them to Habitat for Humanity or something along those lines?

I'd be very surprised if salvageable materials were not salvaged by someone. I don't expect the old buildings to become crack houses.

The place is a desolate hole in the middle of nowhere.

I admit that was my original thought after reading the article. Anyone who's been to Burning Man has seen this "town" and, while it's certainly sad to lose a community that people love, I can't help but feel a bit happy that no one has to live in that godforsaken place any longer. And that that belching factory will stop belching.

Sure there's a boom and bust cycle in housing, but the materials and processes have changed. Or what JPD said.

Give the town's scrap to Burners without Borders and let the desert reclaim the space. Go blow up the earth elsewhere to get more precious crap.

In other words, there was no point to this company anymore, and no sustainability for the town without the company. As others have said, it's crazy they lasted this long.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:58 AM on June 20, 2011


In other words, there was no point to this company anymore, and no sustainability for the town without the company.

And really, the onus now is on the Burning Man organization to figure out a sustainable plan for the local people they need to service their event, which will be interesting, because it seems like the Gerlach town has become pretty important to the organization.

It's the kind of thing where it may be literally impossible for you to save enough money to transport yourself to the next nearest civilized location.

That's a good description (although just wait until labor day and you can hitch a free ride with a clever sign or a smile). It's out there.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:04 AM on June 20, 2011


So this would be more like your mom filing for Chapter 13 relief while you were sick so that she could keep a house over your head and food in your mouths and then going back to work and dealing with the debt.

Of course, taking a few seconds to determine that's the type of bankruptcy in question is a lot less fun that firing off a flippant comment.


That didn't occur to me, but that is good news -- they did create a fund to pay victims. The distribution procedures (pdf) do make the fund sound underfunded, but maybe that's typical. I was unable to find out how the settlement compares to others.

I might still believe the "roof over the head" narrative of a company seeking to do the best it possibly could given the sudden appearance of this new disease, if nobody had had the slightest idea that asbestos was dangerous. However, I also found this page outlining plaintiff's evidence of the company's foreknowledge of the dangers beginning in the 30s. Exposures continued through the early 80s. So, it's more like the time my mom exposed me to dangerous carcinogens for decades, despite having been warned numerous time, despite knowing graphic details about the deaths of my older brothers, despite not only being aware of scientific research but actually covering some up (in 1948).

So I don't believe a narrative in which the company's actions were entirely in good faith. Asbestosis and lung cancer have a really high human impact. Claiming that it was all just one happy, loving family still seems naive to me. There seems to be a bigger story here with more culpability. (But I won't return your jab at me with any ad hominem assumptions about what you did and did not intentionally overlook before making your comment, and what you do and do not consider fun.)

suggesting that people there could simply get a second job at the gold mine (or "whatever") reflects a lack of understanding of resource extraction

Yeah. I could've said, "reduce labor costs temporarily by taking volunteers for unpaid leave, particularly among those who could find other work, and allowing up to five years of that work elsewhere to qualify for USG seniority credits," or something less flip. Nevertheless, making fun of my word choice doesn't invalidate the original point -- that another ownership form might be able to achieve better results for individual workers and the Empire community, particularly considering that Bitter Old Punk provided a successful example above.
posted by salvia at 8:26 AM on June 20, 2011


There might be some hope for Gerlach with, oddly enough, green energy. Their are some little know hot springs and geysers in the area and last summer when i went through (if you live in Oregon and have family in the southwest the shortest route goes through Gerlach...)

Some details here

And this is really ,truly the middle of nowhere in a desert valley that gets very little rain (like death valley kinda rain) at a high altitude. Chances are you haven't even heard of the nearby towns that you go to to do your shopping like Fernley (the big industry here is a amazon warehouse) or Alturas. And you have to drive HOURS to get there.

I like these out of the way places, knowing where they are and even imagine winning the lottery and buying some ranch nearby and learning to not give a damn about the world because I don't have to.

I am amazed this place is still around. In 5 years the ghost town of empire will probably look like the pictures of chernobyl, there isn't even enough people nearby to really loot the place.

A do lift a glass to yet another dry, dusty corner of the world that is testimony to mankinds retreat to the cities and automation. May our population soon decrease as our little towns have...
posted by bartonlong at 11:48 AM on June 20, 2011


Claiming that it was all just one happy, loving family still seems naive to me.

Are you really *that* into defending your popular but inaccurate snark? You blatantly misused the family quote.

The quote was "The folks who make their homes in Empire are one big happy family." The Empire facility mined gypsum, which has nothing to do with asbestos, other than the fact that it may have had asbestos added to it elsewhere. Are you arguing for collective guilt on the part of low level workers in a different division? Are you really arguing that a few hundred workers working a stressful job in a desolate location can't form a bond? Can the team that designs airbags at Mercedes not be described as a happy family because of the actions of some parts of Daimler-Benz during WWII? Are the birthday parties thrown at your local Citibank branches for their employees a hollow, empty sham because of bad actions taken by members of the mortgage division?

I won't return your jab at me with any ad hominem assumptions about what you did and did not intentionally overlook before making your comment, and what you do and do not consider fun

By your own admission, you did not look up any information about what type of bankruptcy it was or what the implications of said bankruptcy would be before making your comment. You either completely misunderstood a simple statement or willfully distorted the truth in order to make a funny comment. It's pretty self evident that the reason you would post witty comments to a forum quite notorious for being filled with snark (and generally a dislike of corporations) would be for fun, yes?

It's not actually fallacious to use ad hominem comments when it's relevant to the discussion at hand, BTW.

making fun of my word choice doesn't invalidate the original point

I'm not simply making fun of your word choice. Once again, I've been there, I've studied economics, and I've specifically studied what happens when small towns loose an industry that provided the majority of its populace with jobs. There isn't a whole lot of "whatever" possible there and a lot of what exists outside of the mining with whither away without the mining money to keep it afloat.

particularly considering that Bitter Old Punk provided a successful example above.

Yes, because a rich man willing his company (that was successful at the time of his death and located in a major urban area) to his employees is the same thing as suggesting that individual workers should pool their life savings to try to keep a defunct operation going in the middle of nowhere. Corporations may be kind of evil but one thing they're very often good at is shutting down inefficient operations, even if there's a human cost to those that live there. Considering that the infrastructure is all in place already and largely paid for, that's a pretty good indication that there simply is no viable way to keep things going there. Simply keeping the town going is expensive, which is why they're shuttering it rather than, say, turning it into a retirement community.

Gypsum is in low demand. There's more of it available in the form of the byproduct of coal scrubbers or mines in more populated areas than the market wants. Those are the locations where you can get away with an elastic workforce because there are other jobs available.
posted by Candleman at 2:06 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


No photo of the "welcome to nowhere" sign is kind of a fail for that photo gallery, no?
posted by EJXD2 at 2:26 PM on June 20, 2011


mrhappy: "Yeah, can't Larry Harvey buy it and call it Burning Village or something?"

Nah, that would be the Centralia that Ad Hominem mentioned above.
posted by symbioid at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2011


Sorry, Candleman, but in my in-person life, I don't have extended political and theoretical discussions with people whose tone strikes me in the way that yours comes off to me here, and it feels even less worthwhile to me to do so via the internet. I'm not conceding your points or anything, but I acknowledge you disagree with me and think I made mistakes and/or am operating in bad faith, and I think you may be overlooking a few facts and/or perspectives, and we probably won't change one another's minds, which to me is fine. I'm not claiming your comment was extremely extreme or anything, just more than is enjoyable for me. But now to a less personal topic and regular size font.

An idle plant, an empty town (LA Times 3/29/2011) addresses a few things people discussed above, e.g., "While Marks, her husband, Anthony, and their three children missed city conveniences, the cheap rent allowed them to sock away cash" (so fortunately, yes, tumid dahlia). It also does a good (and really sad) job of talking about people's grief at the closure.
posted by salvia at 6:39 PM on June 20, 2011


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