In my recent essay on manufacturing fetishism, I described how the decline of manufacturing industry had been associated with the decline of the company town. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Britain and the United States. Cities that were once prosperous centres attracting workers from around the country are now associated with dereliction and decline. The bankrupt city of Detroit, once synonymous with the automobile industry, is the most extreme example. But there is no more steel made in Pittsburgh – its population is half what it once was. Middlesborough on Teeside, once made prosperous by petrochemicals, is now better known for its drug culture. The fine but decayed buildings of central Bradford are a reminder that the city was once the proud hub of the British textile industry, but is no more. And there are many mining communities across the developed world from which the life has gone as the pits have closed.
There are similarly depressed locations in Continental Europe. But Wolfsburg is still the thriving headquarters of Volkswagen. Northern Italy is still famous for its clusters – locations in which small firms cooperate and compete: Ties come from Como, and sofas from Meda, though the tailoring centre of Prato is now as much Chinese as Italian.
In contrast to manufacturing, services are rarely provided in large plants. There are exceptions: Modern hospitals are often big businesses, employing 10,000 people or more; but it is in the nature of medical treatment that most provision is local. Other services such as finance and law may be bought at a distance, and these tend to be provided in clusters in which knowledge is shared. Hence Holborn is the centre of London law and the City of London its finance hub. But most law and banking is still locally delivered.
Theatres are on Broadway, and film studios are still based in Hollywood; but for different reasons. Theatre patrons go to Broadway and Hollywood takes its wares to moviegoers.
Because service industries are typically fragmented by many firms, and employ highly skilled people, they rarely experience the cycles of growth and decline which affect so many manufacturing sectors. Towns like Lovell or Saltaire, once thriving centres of industry, are today industrial museums, providing services rather than manufacturing goods. It is hard to visualise the reverse transition.
And yet there is one industry which is conducted in large plants, in which people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to consume the product, and which has been conducted in company towns not just for decades, but for centuries. That industry is higher education.
Padua has been a university city since the 13th century, and Oxford and Cambridge for almost as long. Leyden in the Netherlands and Heidelberg in Germany were among the first continental European universities, and are still towns entirely focused on higher education. Cambridge Massachusetts is home to not one but two world-leading institutions, and Austin stands out as a liberal oasis in the Texas heartland.
And being a university city is more than ever a recipe for prosperity. Palo Alto is the extreme example; but Oxford and Cambridge are attractive not just to industries that benefit from spin-offs from academic research but also to professionals with no academic connections who find university towns an agreeable place to live and bring up their children. And so, as junior faculty at Stanford or Oxbridge will readily tell you, these associated activities have the character of a parasite which threatens to strangle the host -the cost of living in these locations is now prohibitive for academics. The decline of a company town is an economic problem, but so is its success.