WORKING PAPER. DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION. 2014.
Dwelling in the Bakken: Workforce Housing in the Bakken in a Global and Historical Perspective for North Dakota International Borders International Studies Speaker Series Empire Theater, Backstage Project, Grand Forks, North Dakota William Caraher, University of North Dakota Introduction It is difficult to escape the international context of the Bakken Oil Boom. Between the involvement of ginormous international companies to the explosive impact of Bakken crude in a small Canadian town, the extraction of North Dakota oil stands at the intersection of global supply chains, capital, and markets. The national and international media has become fascinated by the impact of these international trends on the tight-nit, small-town communities of Western North Dakota and play up the impact of the oil industry on “isolated” rural America. Among the standard series of images associated with the Bakken boom, are those of the “man camp.” Just as many of these images appeal to long-held stereotypes of the working classes - especially those involved in extractive industries, the man camp has a long historic pedigree and my talk today will locate this phenomena in a historical and global context. Cyprus My perspectives on the Bakken come from a rather unusual place: over a decade of archaeological research on the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. From as early as the Bronze Age (i.e. 1600 BC) the island saw the systematic extraction and processing of copper from the unique geology of the Troodos mountains. The site of Politiko-Phorades, excavated by Sydney Cyprus Survey Project under the direction of Bernard Knapp, preserved the remains of a Late Bronze Age smelting facility set in a region where numerous veins of copper were near the surface. While the site itself showed little evidence for habitation, there are two sites nearby that preserved an assemblage of ceramic material suggestive of habitation. What is surprising at this site and its surrounding area is the dearth of arable land meaning that the community working the vein of copper had to be supplied by an agricultural support village some 2 km distant. The support villages and production sites fell under the control of larger political centers on the island who then benefited from the export of copper around the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece While I worked in Cyprus, I spent a part of every summer documenting a site in Greece. Situated in the southeastern Corinthia, the site of Lakka Skoutara is a collection of 20 houses clustered around a crossroads in an upland valley. They largely dated to the late-19 and early 20 century. Nearly every house has a cistern and a threshing floor for the processing of wheat grown on the terraced valley walls; the remains of an olive mill and centuries-old olive trees dot the valley bottom.. While this is not an extractive industry in the same way as oil production or copper smelting, it nevertheless took place at the periphery of the major village which stood some 5 km distant. The site was only occupied seasonally during the harvest when families came for the threshing of grain or harvesting olives. Each house had the barest necessities: a cistern, an oven, and room for sleeping and for animals. At the same time, the architecture was similar to that of a village house, they stood at a rural crossroads, and clustered around a small church bringing some aspect of village life to the temporary character of the rural harvest.
Texas A world away, in the East Texas oil boom, the Humble Oil company (which would later become Exxon) arranged for housing for their employees near the town of Kiglore, Texas (pop. ca. 500). The facilities ranged from five room houses with electricity and gas for supervisors to lots where hourly employees could build or move more modest homes in the so-called “poor boy camp.” Workers looking for work or filling the myriad lower-paying or more contingent positions in support of the work in the East Texas fields often lived in the woods around Kilgore. Over 300 people once squatted in a camp known as “Happy Hollow” despite regular raids by the police. Corporate interests in providing suitable housing for employees varied. Some looked to workforce housing to attract better quality employees. In other cases, camps provided an opportunity to reinforce social boundaries between the different ranks of employees in the oil patch. Whatever the case, the camps served the needs of a rapidly expanding workforce. Qatar The rapid growth of the Gulf States on the back of oil and gas capital has led to the massive influx in temporary labor. The tiny nation of Qatar, for example, hosts close to 350,000 Nepalese workers in a nation of fewer than a quarter million inhabitants. Tristan Bruslé has recently studied the camps set up to house these workers. The camps housing the guest workers sit in industrial sites at the edge of the desert and consist of portacabins that would not be out of place in the Bakken. The residents struggle with boredom and homesickness and find unique ways to carve out a modicum of privacy, personal space, and community in the austerely function accommodations. The global movement of labor and capital has produced a need for short-term, modular housing for a workforce who contributes to rapidly shifting pace, scale, and needs for contemporary capitalism.
North Dakota Since 2010, the Bakken counties of North Dakota have seen an almost unprecedented population influx to serve an oil boom fueled by globally high petroleum prices and the advent of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil from tiny pockets miles beneath the surface. Drilling rigs have given the western prairie a decidedly vertical dimension and workforce housing has created a new type of rural sprawl. Man-camps have appeared in agricultural land along the Route 2 corridor through the Bakken counties and RV parks and other facilities offering “workforce housing solutions” have appeared in a ring around almost every settlement in the area. Even nearly abandoned towns have become the focus of workforce housing as vacant lots and parks have become filled with RVs availing themselves to power and roads. Workforce housing in the Bakken accommodates a fluid population of short-term residents who not only work in the oil patch proper, but also provide support for new building, maintenance on the substantial fleet of trucks, and the construction of pipelines throughout the area. These camps have also absorbed a certain amount of low-wage and independent labor displaced from traditional housing in Williston. Despite their utility, municipalities have been decided ambivalent with regard to work forcing housing and have taken steps to control their spread and appearance. Discussion Our study of workforce housing in the Bakken has focused on both the architecture and material conditions of workforce housing as well as the human aspects. By combining interviews with the careful documentation of the material culture we have started to compile an extensive dataset of attitudes, objects, and architecture in the Bakken that can speak to the global nature of the oil boom. The largest and most prominent “man camps” in the Bakken are those constructed and administered by large corporations like Target Logistics. We call them Type 1 camps. These camps represent a kind of international vernacular architecture that would be familiar to short term workers around world as well as soldiers and Olympic athletes. Type 2 and 3 camps are RV parks or other spaces where residents generally bring their own units. Type 2 camps provide power and in most cases water and sewage. Type 3 camps tend to be ad hoc, scattered, and rare without water or power. Many Type 3 camps stand on short term construction sites or are occupied by squatters. The range of workforce housing in North Dakota is both the continuation of a longstanding and global process as well as a distinctly local and modern phenomenon. Historically, workforce housing for resource extraction represents a particular visible manifestation for how the core exploits the resources of the periphery. In fact, the physical location of capital and raw materials is a defining
feature in the core and periphery dyad. The geographical remoteness of certain peripheries - whether in premodern terms like the copper deposits of the Troodos Mountains or in modern terms like western North Dakota - tends to place the core in a position of economic, cultural, and political dominance over the communities of the periphery. By the 1970s, scholars like Andre Gunder Frank saw the practices attendant to the core-periphery relationship as central to their underdevelopment and critiqued the motives of the part of the core to maintain these regions as dependent sources of resources. Others have asserted, following Gramsci, that hegemonic structures ranging from the globalization of the economy to deeply conservative political belief and assertions of common culture enforced the periphery’s role in the core-periphery dyad . Frank and other core-periphery critics have tended to deploy this model to understand the relationship between global political and economic centers and the so-called “undeveloped” or “Third World.” The economic organization of Late Capitalism or Late Modernity offers challenges for a simplistic core-periphery dyad, of course. Multinational corporations no longer present clear “cores” asserting dominance over geographic or political peripheries. This destabilization of the core-periphery relationship become clear in our reading of workforce housing in western North Dakota. For example, the mobile, modular nature of Type 1 camps and their wide distribution in different contexts around the world reinforces the fluidity of human capital in 21 century economies. Like the “cubical farm” office or the camp for Nepalese guest works in Qatar, the peripheral and contingent workforces no longer assemble and disperse at the physical or even political margins, but wherever global capital flows. In keeping with the speed and transience of late capitalism, the austere nature of these units present the quintessential “non place” without distinguishing characteristics, regional styling cues, or obvious orientation.
The RVs and mobile homes of Type 2 and 3 camps might initially present an even more dislocated notion of peripheral space as their very form embodies varying degrees of transience and independence from geographic constraint. From a historical perspective, John Bickerstaff Jackson observed in his classic essay that the mobile home continues a long tradition of short term, temporary housing that has followed the western frontier from the first settlements on the Atlantic. Even if we accept that the late modern world has globalized the character of both cores and peripheries and the contingent character of the mobile workforce, the residents and units in Type 2 and Type 3 camps in North Dakota nevertheless appear to view the tradition of domesticity that recognizes the home (in whatever form) as an expression of identity. Residents in the wellestablished Type 2 camps build elaborate mudroom additions, surround their units with potted plans, fence simple lawns, build paths and decks, and maintain picnic tables and outdoor living spaces. While one could argue that outdoor living spaces and mudroom additions are concessions to the cramped conditions of RV life, residents often take pains to beautify their space, introduce landscape cues like paths, gardens, patios, set apart from, say, the parking areas for vehicles or storage. Hints of ethnic identities appear as well in the choice of color schemes for the plywood mudrooms or the statue of the Madonna in the small garden. In other words, the contingent nature
of workforce housing did not prevent residents of the Bakken from investing in their surroundings in ways that echo the more settled domesticity of the suburban neighborhood. The destabilizing modern periphery of the suburb, then, becomes a model for the workforce housing in the Bakken just as the seasonal settlement at Lakka Skoutara adopted cues from the home village. Efforts to appeal to suburban models of domesticity frequent break down in the contingent space of temporary workforce housing. The dirt and grime of the industries related to oil work cover vehicles and equipment parked close to mobile homes and RVs. In many cases Type 2 and Type 3 camps stand at worksites and violates the traditional distinction between space for work and space for domestic pursuits. Ironically, it is Type 1 camps that distinguish more clearly between space for work and space for sleeping and eating. They present a warped model of domesticity that adapts the early 20 century company town to contingent character of the late 20 century workforce. They’re an efficient and industrialized, 21 century echo of the company towns set up by the Humble Oil Company in Kilgore, Texas.
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Conclusion The international context for workforce housing in the Bakken Oil patch goes far beyond simply comparing sites and practices around the world and through time. The capital and workforce in the Bakken represent distinct currents in our increasingly global economy. International markets for Bakken crude, global investment in the region, and the ability to deploy and maintain labor in a relatively isolated region of the world speaks to increasingly homogenized landscape of capital (filled with “non-places” designed to eliminate friction and expenses) as well as the contingent nature of how we dwell as parts of this hegemonic system. In this context, the efforts of residents of Type 2 camps to differentiate their units from one another contrasts in a meaningful way with the austere and regularized spaces of the Type 1 camp. If the latter reveals the streamlined and low-friction movement of global capital (they are truly international spaces) and the latter reveal persistent efforts of individuals to carve out a sense of place and community in a transient and contingent world.