In the waning days of March 2017, as Donald Trump busied himself taking photo-ops with truckers and dismantling Obama-era environmental protections, a young man named Austen Allred did what young people do these days when they have a thought. He took himself to Twitter.
“I’m just waiting for someone to buy up an entire city in the middle of nowhere and do something interesting,” he mused, tweeting a link to a $65,000 two-bedroom ranch house in Gary, Indiana. “Maybe good place to start is to find the towns that were hit the hardest by automation/factories closing. Turn it into low-cost tech utopia.”
Allred is a Silicon Valley twenty-something perhaps best known for living in his car as he tried to raise the VC to get his startup, Grasswire, a “crowdsourced newsroom” that fact-checked breaking social media info, off the ground. Grasswire tanked in 2015. Since then he’s co-written a book (Secret Sauce: The Ultimate Growth Hacking Guide) and recently launched a free online code boot camp. He’s an idea guy: young, hungry, and eager to bend the world to his vision.
He was, rightly, excoriated across a swath of what one might call “Rust Belt Twitter” —and not just for locating Gary, thirty miles from Chicago, in the “middle of nowhere.” More troubling than the geographic blinders, the Twittersphere noted, was the plain erasure of the lived history of Gary, a company town brought low by a potent brew of political corruption, union busting, white flight, and environmental destruction. Cheap houses don’t get cheap in a vacuum, and the dilapidated physical infrastructure of the Rust Belt affects not just crumbling churches like Gary’s famed City Methodist, but also less aesthetically exciting aspects of urban life like, say, public transportation and access to high-speed internet. As one commenter pointed out, “it’d take a many millions of dollars’ investment to make [Gary] a low-cost tech hub.”
Gary is, in a word, apocalyptic—the perfect readymade set for the
next made-for-Netflix dystopian fiction.
Gary has a population of about 76,500; its citizens are 84 percent African American, with an average 8.4 percent unemployment rate. The median household income is $28,020; there are about six thousand abandoned homes. Its downtown is a grim moonscape of vacant storefronts flanked by gaseous industry and the interstate. Gary just plain lacks the glamour of Rust Belt pinups like Detroit, with its Packard plant photo shoots and Michigan Central Station restoration. Where Detroit had the Big Three sparking American dreams of the open road, Gary had the largest steel mill in the country blocking its view of Lake Michigan. No one is spray-painting “Move to Gary!” on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Gary is just desolate. Gary is crumbling. Gary is, in a word, apocalyptic—the perfect readymade set for the next made-for-Netflix dystopian fiction.
But dystopia and utopia are forever twinned. Gary also has money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with its $2.4 billion endowment, and the imprimatur of Theaster Gates, the Chicago-based artistic entrepreneur of urban decay. It’s got Miller Beach, with its midcentury-modern homes and microbrews. It’s got a sustainable food movement, community gardens, and grassroots activists of every stripe with plans incomprehensible to the Austen Allreds of the world. When in 2016 the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group pitched an eight-hundred-bed immigrant detention center near the airport as an economic development no-brainer, local prison abolitionists and Gary’s Black Lives Matter chapter mobilized in protest. The initial proposal was squashed in two days; a later version was shut down by the city council in six weeks.
The prospect of building a tech utopia on the ruins of the Magic City makes sense, in other words, only if you’ve never been there—as long as it remains a utopia true to Thomas More’s original coinage, a mashup of the Greek “ou-topos,” or “no place” and “eu-topos,” or “good place.” Because in reality, as geographer and anthropologist Alex B. Hill has written of Detroit: “The unknown is not empty.”
A Sunken Boatload of Knowledge
Indiana knows a thing or two about repurposed utopias. Two hundred and forty-one miles south of Gary, smack in the middle of what coastal pundits might dub “Pence Country,” the pastoral town of New Harmony perches on the bank of the Wabash River. Where the surrounding hamlets are marked by rusted-out farming equipment and drive-thru liquor stores, New Harmony is relatively booming. Sure, there’s no school, and the main drag is sleepy at high noon, but the town is tidy and prosperous, with a gleaming, modernist visitors’ center looming at the edge of town. New Harmony has kept the dust of rural Indiana at bay by banking on historical tourism, the modern way of building on an existing foundation.
In the nineteenth century the town was home to not one but two utopian communities. First came the Rappites, eight hundred or so German millennialists who arrived on the banks of the Wabash in 1814, after selling Harmony—their first town, in Pennsylvania—to the Mennonites. Led by its austere and terrifying patriarch, Father George Rapp, the sect built a new village in Indiana, naming it “Harmony” as well. The Harmonists lived there in pacifist, celibate community for ten years, preparing for the New Jerusalem. But in 1825 they sold this town, too, to Robert Owen, the Welsh industrialist who had established a workers’ utopia of sorts at his textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland.
A socialist and a Deist, Owen sailed to the States to try and put more of his ideas of cooperative living into practice, and enticed a thousand or so others to join him in his Indiana experiment. His disciples sailed the Ohio River to “New Harmony” later that year on what was later dubbed “the Boatload of Knowledge,” so learned were its passengers reputed to be. To quickly increase the population of the town (and to perform the labor that the Boatload’s elites weren’t about to, egalitarianism be damned), Owen issued a public call for the “industrious and well-disposed of all nations” to emigrate to Indiana.
In Owen’s utopia, private property was abolished, children as young as two were placed in communal schools, and the education of girls was encouraged. Women, shockingly for the time, wore pants. The apothecary dispensed free medicines, and the grocery supplied dry goods and sundries on credit. The former Rappite church was turned into a hall for lectures and other public entertainments, where Owen, during his infrequent visits, railed against the three great evils of property, religion, and marriage.
The whole thing lasted less than two years, splintering into three competing factions. By 1827, Owen’s vision of the perfect socialist community had collapsed. Wrote John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, once best known for its practice of free love and now for its line of silverware, in his Strange Cults and Utopias of 19th-Century America:
The greater part of the town was now resolved into individual lots; a grocery was established opposite the tavern; painted sign-boards began to be stuck up on the buildings, pointing out places of manufacture and trade; a sort of wax-figure-and-puppet-show was opened at one end of the boardinghouse; and every thing was getting into the old style.
Noyes and other nineteenth-century pundits variously chalked up the colony’s failure to Owen’s long absences, too much diversity among the members, lack of a common creed, individual malcontents, a naïve underestimation of the intractability of class, or an unchecked flow of whiskey. But one of the more interesting theories floated concluded that it was the town’s prefab nature—Owen’s attempt to import and impose his perfect community on the bones of another’s—that sealed its doom. A successful utopia, in this view, can only be sustained by the work that goes into conceiving, creating, and nourishing it. As John Pratt observed in a letter to the Oneida Circular:
Like most men of the last generation [Owen] looked upon society as a manufactured product, and not as an organism endued with imperishable vitality and growth. Like them he attributed all the evils it endured to priests and politicians, whose immediate annihilation would be followed by immediate, everlasting and universal happiness.
Nowadays, rather than seeking to perfect human nature and optimize the range of collaborative productive efforts, the Midwest’s erstwhile utopias serve to prop up patriarchs.
It would be astonishing if an experiment initiated by such a class of thinkers should succeed under the most favorable auspices.
Added Noyes, “A public invitation to ‘the industrious and well-disposed of all nations,’ to come on and take possession of thirty thousand acres of land and a ready-made village, leaving each one to judge as to his own industry and disposition, would insure a prompt gathering—and also a speedy scattering.”
Owen fled back to Scotland. His biological and intellectual heirs, however, remained in the Wabash Valley. His son Robert Dale Owen served in the Indiana state legislature and advocated for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery; later, as a congressman, he helped found the Smithsonian Institution. A century later his great-grandson married oil heiress Jane Blaffer Owen; it’s her fortune that has fueled contemporary New Harmony’s prosperity and refinement, putting the riches of oil in the service of contemplative green spaces and a great deal of public art.
Nowadays, rather than seeking to perfect human nature and optimize the range of collaborative productive efforts, the Midwest’s erstwhile utopias serve to prop up patriarchs.
And what of the Rappites, the original Harmonists? After dispatching themselves quietly and efficiently back up the Ohio to Pennsylvania, they settled a new town outside Pittsburgh, and in a nod, perhaps, to some quiet lessons learned from their Indiana experiment, dubbed it “Economy.” The Rappites abandoned celibacy and went on to multiply and prosper in true early Rust Belt fashion, making millions in oil and railroads.
Timing Is Everything
There are more than a few would-be visionaries running loose through the Rust Belt these days—entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and technocrats who see the struggling industrial Midwest as an enticingly blank slate, a place to reverse-engineer the Protestant spirit of utopianism in the service of capital, stripped of any pesky commitment to communal ethics.
Consider Rod Lockwood, Jr., a developer and onetime chair of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, who in 2013 floated a proposal to buy Detroit’s Belle Isle (currently a public park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) for $1 billion and turn it into a U.S. commonwealth—a “free market utopia” for the wealthy, who could purchase citizenship for $300,000. Think Puerto Rico by way of Singapore, a “Midwest Tiger” of skyscrapers with its own “laws, customs, and currency.” That currency? The “Rand”—as in Ayn.
Few seem to have taken him seriously, given that this proposal was born out of a science-fiction novel authored by Lockwood (also called Belle Isle), but the delivery system only enhances its dystopian menace. Lockwood recently released a 2017 edition of the book, with a few small tweaks. In the FAQ section of his website he explains the delay and makes clear where his politics lie. “Timing is everything,” he writes. “After the first edition was published, top Michigan officials advised that as long as President Obama was in office, the idea had no chance. Now that the status quo has been disrupted, a fresh new idea might be considered.”
Meanwhile, over in Grand Rapids, the DeVos family—the nest of snakes that bequeathed to the nation possibly the most poisonous member of the most terrifying collection of vipers ever collected in one Cabinet—has set its $5.1 billion fortune to the task of breaching the wall between church and state, ushering in a New Jerusalem in which conservative Christian values are yoked to the service of an unfettered free market.
The family’s pot of gold was filled by tithes generated by the multilevel marketing juggernaut of Amway. Since its founding by patriarch Richard DeVos in 1959, the family business has been fleecing people around the world desperate to make an extra buck. With the spoils the DeVos family has reshaped modern Michigan, stocking the state legislature with their handpicked representatives, obliterating protections for workers, and remaking public education in the state—and now the nation.
In St. Louis, a philanthropist with the Legion-of-Doom-worthy name of Rex Sinquefield has taken advantage of Missouri’s no-limit campaign contribution laws to shovel $40 million to political candidates and PACs. His goal: that state and local income taxes be eliminated and the lost revenue replaced by a higher sales tax. (He’s a University of Chicago MBA, surprise.)
And in Ohio, every liberal’s favorite hillbilly-made-good, J.D. Vance, has announced he’s forsaking Silicon Valley to split his time between Columbus and Washington, D.C., and captain a VC firm bankrolled by AOL billionaire Steve Case. One can only speculate as to the personal-responsibility, blame-the-poor platform on which his inevitable run for office will be built.
But would-be Rust Belt world-builders might find Robert Owen’s failure instructive. If dystopia is utopia’s twin, and totalitarianism its dark shadow, capitalism is the dog nipping at its heels. New Harmony, like Oneida in New York State, and the Amana Colonies in Iowa, was part of a constellation of communes trying to improve human nature in the infancy of American industrialism. Each wound up succumbing to its snares. Oneida became rich thanks to its invention of a mousetrap, together with its flatware empire. Amana became awash in appliance riches. The Rappites found their fortune in steel and oil at the dawn of the industrial age, while the legacy of the Owenites endures by packaging and polishing the past for passing tourists.
Now, from Buffalo to Davenport, the transformation of these capitals of inland resource extraction into ideologically driven company towns is seen as the only viable plan for a short-term revenue boost. Nowadays, rather than seeking to perfect human nature and optimize the range of collaborative productive efforts, the Midwest’s erstwhile utopias serve to prop up patriarchs (and a few matriarchs) with little care for the concerns of labor. The free market has the last word—and in one grim sense, has presided over an unacknowledged transformation of human nature, into the raw material of social innovation for the material and spiritual salvation of the chosen few.
It’s just part of the strategy on God’s battleground, Betsy DeVos told assembled peers at “The Gathering” (an annual conference for wealthy Christians) in 2001: “Our desire is to . . . confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom . . . not to stay in our own little faith territory.”
Added her husband, Dick: “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church and school and family much more tightly focused and being built on a consistent worldview.”
It’s a utopian vision worthy of Father Rapp himself.
Utopia Is Here, If You Want It
Kate Brown’s 2015 book Dispatches from Dystopia is a travelogue through the ruins of the 20th century’s great utopian experiment, the Soviet Union. She visits Kazakhstan, Chernobyl, and the Ural Mountains, but her travels ultimately take her back home, to rusty Elgin, Illinois.
“The Rust Belt,” she writes, “serves as a metaphor to express anxieties about the economy, society, race, and the nature of human life. Detroit and places like it are visible voyeuristically as porn, aesthetically as beauty, and economically as opportunity, but the violence that created these places goes unacknowledged. Only rarely, when writers of the Rust Belt speak for themselves, does a picture emerge of the destructive force that passed through cities like Akron, Youngstown, and Buffalo.”
But writers and filmmakers who take the Rust Belt as their subject are rarely interested in listening to what the people who’ve lived through the violence of globalization and deindustrialization have to say. For example: a recent France 24 feature on the reinvention of Youngstown as a hub of 3D-printing and other digital technologies spent an inordinate amount of time with one longtime Democratic voter who had flipped Republican in 2016. The camera followed her organizing a birthday rally for the president at what appears, in the video, to be a car dealership. Never mind that attendance is anemic.
There are more than a few would-be visionaries running loose through the Rust Belt these days—entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and technocrats who see the struggling industrial Midwest as an enticingly blank slate.
Never mind that no other such Dem-to-Republican flippers are rolled out for the reporter, or that Mahoning County actually went Democratic, as it always has (albeit by a slimmer margin). Narrative trumped reality: the narrative of the Rust Belt as a blank slate for redemption.
Salvation via the imposition of a sweeping, unified vision—whether grounded in religion, the promise of digital technology, or plain old unfettered capitalism—is easy to imagine from the distance of Silicon Valley, or France. But here in the Midwest small utopias are being envisioned and built—and deconstructed and rebuilt again—every day.
They’re in the women’s groups that have spun off from the January 21 march, the BLM chapters, the workers’ co-ops of Southeast Chicago, the raw milk underground and the farmers markets and the food swaps. Utopian ideals are nurtured by Hoosier Action, the antiracist, economic-justice community organization recently launched in Southern Indiana; by Write A House, the literary organization in Detroit that gives free houses to writers; by the mutual aid societies and barter economies that arise in Gary, Detroit, and elsewhere to meet basic human needs in the absence of capital; and that wind up flourishing, fed by something more generative than the dollar. As John Humphrey Noyes noted, utopias exist by, of, and through the work that goes into creating them.
In a companion essay published as back matter to the 2016 Verso edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin identifies the essential nature of classical utopian thinking. “Utopia has been yang. In one way or another, from Plato on, Utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip,” she writes. “Bright, dry, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot.”
But what if we accept that that model has failed? Le Guin continues: “Our civilization is now so intensely yang that any imagination of bettering its injustices or eluding its self destructiveness must involve a reversal. What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.”
If this sounds like some sort of socialist-anarchist-utopian translation of a “The Future is Female” T-shirt, well sure. Why not?
“If utopia is a place that does not exist,” writes Le Guin, “then surely (as Lao Tzu would say) the way to get there is by the way that is not a way. And in the same vein, the nature of the utopia I am trying to describe is such that if it is to come, it must exist already.”