Silicon Valley and the new company towns

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Are tech companies going to build the new company towns? Twenty cities across America are celebrating because they have been shortlisted to be Amazon’s HQ2. Los Angeles is one of them. But here’s the big question facing LA: how would it house Amazon’s anticipated 50,000 employees?

Like fellow contenders Boston, New York and Miami, LA’s housing is very expensive and there’s resistance to building more.

“Companies like Amazon pay their creative class and tech workers like gold… and they treat their service workers like dirt. They contract that work out. They treat these people terribly, they're subject to precarious conditions, they're commuting an hour or two to work,” says urban theorist Richard Florida.

Florida says of companies like Amazon and Google, as well as real estate developers and corporations that consider themselves anchor institutions, “it is their economic and moral obligation to stop extracting from cities, seeing them just as a talent pool or a place to host workers or place companies, and to see them as a place to really build inclusive prosperity.”

Tech companies, it seems, are recognizing they have to look beyond the bounds of their campuses. Facebook has announced plans to build a village of 1,500 homes and a walkable retail district in the Belle Haven section of Menlo Park. That is one of the last affordable places to live in Silicon Valley. These projects have echoes of an industrial-era company town. So what can high-tech companies learn from the corporations of the last century that built housing for their workers?

Architecture journalist Zach Mortice tells DnA about lessons that can be drawn from company towns of the 19th and early 20th century, on the one hand visionary places created by “benevolent capitalists looking to make really long term investments. And on the other, dystopian end, vultures really looking to use this urban infrastructure to extract all the money and value they could out of the land and out of the people.” In a future in which Amazon might own our apartment, he asks, which way will tech companies go?

A rendering of Facebook's planned Anton Menlo Community housing.