Googletown is coming to Mountain View, USA

Company towns sprunch up across the US and Britain in the 19th century. Now, Google has plans to bring them back.
20 June 2023

Company towns appeared in Britain and the US from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Built by industrialists and company owners, worker villages were erected to house employees in sectors from mining to chocolate that had worksites in remote areas.

So, in the internet era when a significant proportion of people work from home, it seems like there’s no need for company towns in the same vein. Yet on June 13, Google received approval for its biggest development ever in Mountain View: a 153-acre mixed-use neighborhood just south of its headquarters.

In partnership with real estate developer Lendlease, Google submitted an application for the “Google North Bayshore Master Plan” in September 2021. The plans for the 30-year project include over 3 million square feet of office space and 7,000 residential units.

Maybe because Google offices are already so known to be Fun Spaces (not like the other offices, it’s a cool office), maybe because so many parodies exist (think the Simpsons, also think Black Mirror), it’s pretty easy to imagine a live-in Google town.

The Victory Project in Don’t Worry Darling (2022) is a creepy company town. Source: Buzzfeed.

It’s almost idyllic. In fact, why did company towns ever stop being a thing?

Eagle Mountain, a ghost town in the California desert recently made headlines when it was sold to a mysterious buyer. Formerly, it was a company town for Kaiser Steel and homed 4,000 residents.

Unlike most company towns, which were a thing of the distant past, Eagle Mountain was established and functioning much more recently. The town erected a 350-seat recreation hall and a center for social activities from a bridge club to Sunday church service. In 1962, the high school opened, with an enrollment of just more than 100 students.

In 1963, Kaiser secured a contract with Mitsubishi and a decade later workers peaked when mining personnel hauled more than 350,000 tons of material in 1975, setting a new record for the industry.

Losses began happening five years later, and in 1981 the board of directors met and announced it would phase out the mine. Eagle Mountain shuttered two years later, and the community was forced to evict.

It’s hard to read Eagle Mountain as a cautionary tale, given how unlikely it is that Google will go out of business anytime soon. However, with a name still familiar to chocolate lovers, why did Bournville go bust?

A model village (the British term for company towns) village built by the Cadbury brothers “to alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions,” Bournville became a blueprint for other model villages around Britain.

Although Bournville is still a functioning town, it’s amalgamated into Birmingham and no longer works as a factory-specific area. The semi-socialist ideals of a company town don’t play into the factory format. An archival article from the Guardian, written in 1901, states

“A first intention was to sell [cottages in Bournville] outright and so create a class of freeholders. But who was to ensure that the new-comers would administer their property in harmony with Mr. Cadbury’s motives and wishes? Then leases were thought of. Cottages to the number of 143 were actually sold at cost price on the leasehold system. But an unearned increment began to pass into the pockets of individuals. People who paid £250 sold their cottages for £325.”

Similar issues arose in America, too. Not only did the remoteness and lack of transportation prevent workers living in company towns from leaving for other jobs, it was also near impossible to buy from independent sellers. With no outside competition, prices could rocket, and employees would amass huge debts that they’d have to pay off before leaving.

If debts weren’t tying workers to their company towns, some used a currency that would only be accepted there. Paying workers a “scrip” tied them to their towns completely. Funnily enough, building an economic institution within the labor market, with a privatized economy, didn’t play out well.

In Pullman, Chicago, rising tensions and lowering wages led to the first national strike in US history. Before it ended, the action involved over 150,000 people and spread into 27 states and territories. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a milestone in American labor history, as the widespread strike by workers was put down by the federal government.

Google would hardly want to incite something similar. Responding to a comparison to company towns, a Google spokesperson said that the new project’s housing, restaurants and services will benefit the broader Mountain View community.

If working for Google isn’t a prerequisite, what will keep citizens in line with Google’s vision? Prices, perhaps. Originally, developers planned to dedicate 20% of the new housing to affordable units, but the approved plan sets aside only 15% for lower- and middle-income housing.

And yet, we can’t help but be a little swayed by Michael Tymoff, Google’s director of district development for Mountain View, who said in a statement that “together, we’ve created a way to transform an existing car-centric, suburban office park into a vibrant neighborhood with parks, restaurants, services, jobs and much-needed housing.”