American Ugly: Bakken Shantytowns and Stucco Strip Malls

Boomtowns don't have to be ugly. San Francisco was built during the Gold Rush, as was Sacramento and dozens of still pretty towns in the Sierra Nevada. Virginia City, home to the Comstock Lode, quickly built up neighborhoods of ornate mansions and a main street that offered everything from Oscar Wilde lectures in the opera house to exotic prostitutes from Australia and China. But since the 1960s, when America lost its ability to see or create beauty, our endless boom and bust cycle produces nothing but garbage: garbage housing, garbage retail, garbage jobs and garbage products.

Williston, the closest thing to a city in the Bakken oil field, has its tree-lined streets of 19th Century houses and a faded business district by the train station and grain elevators. There are beautiful old Lutheran churches with their plain white steeples poking up into the endless sky. You can look down on the Missouri River, wandering right there across the railroad tracks, and see ducks and geese in the blue water and great splashes of autumn color from the riparian trees. Williston has green parks—at least until the winter hits—and a few local shops of the type that appeal to a visitor like me: an independent cafe, an independent bookseller with lots of Great Plains history, an old drug store attached to a cafeteria filled with mounted animal heads. There's a well-maintained bandshell and an indoor stadium for sports, pop music shows and civic events.

The oil boom hasn't brought anything of this sort—all the last oil boom brought, in the 1980s, was miles of leaking petroleum pipes and a bunch of unfinished suburban ghettos chopped out of the prairie. The oil industry creates horror and wreckage, not livable towns for people who aspire to some dignity and joy.

In the five years since Bakken took off, there's a lot more traffic and a lot more drifters looking to bust into the RV camps while the men are at work. Shantytowns of RVs, many hastily covered in plywood and particle board to provide some insulation, cover the countryside. There are cheap, flimsy metal buildings lining the highway in and out of town, and vast cleared areas stacked with hundreds of shipping containers and semi-truck trailers. Four-lane highways are being built not for families or long-time residents, but for the oil company trucks that rumble back and forth from dawn to dark. There is the evil monstrosity of the Walmart and the recently closed local businesses that lost their retail sales despite the swelling population. Beyond the McDonald's and the Pizza Hut and the impossible-to-avoid Subway sandwich franchises—including one inside the Walmart—the addition of 15,000 or 25,000 residents has also delivered a single Applebee's to town for those special occasions.

On the horizon, which is not as flat out here near the Montana border, there are oil well towers here and there, along with the flaring natural gas fires because the oil companies would rather burn off the natural gas than get it to market. Crude oil is profitable, even when you're trucking it hundreds of miles. Natural gas is cheap and plentiful. Both are rapidly destroying the climate we live in, but that's a story for another day, which is a subject that seems off-limits when the times are allegedly so good.

The oil companies pay taxes, although they're also the beneficiaries of enormous state and federal incentives. Many of the transient workers in their RVs and Man Camps keep their home addresses in other states, limiting what they pay in local taxes. The workers who never leave the oil company housing units may not drop a nickel into the North Dakota economy beyond the gasoline taxes they pay to fill up before driving hundreds or thousands of miles back home.

The frontier, whether the whole New World or the Gold Rush or the Klondike or the Bakken, draws the brave and the desperate and the opportunistic. The risks and discomforts are priced in. But in those earlier booms, a sign of success was a beautiful town, an opera house that also hosted Shakespearean plays and string quartets, at least one library and as many churches as saloons. Artisans and craftsmen were necessary to turn the rough blight of initial discovery into a handsome town where men could bring their families to start new lives, and weary prostitutes could transform into schoolteachers or real-estate moguls.

Nobody on the Bakken oil patch seems to expect anything of the sort, although a handful of Williston citizens are making an effort. There are posters in the mostly empty downtown asking residents to demand some good things from this boom. But it's doubtful that even anything beneficial will be beautiful.

Almost everything in America now is hideous to the eye and hurtful to the soul. When that invisible line was crossed in the 1950s, that last stage of democratic design and American style, the tailfins and neon became nostalgia fuel as cheap stucco apartment buildings and plastic letters spread over the nation. We got used to brutal suburbs without sidewalks connected to office parks and strip malls by immense flat boulevards. And the working-class homes of the early 20th Century became fetishized by urban professionals who had learned just enough to realize America had collectively abandoned all aesthetics.

The workers who come to the Bakken come from places that don't look much different, whether those hometowns are in Florida or Texas or Georgia or Arizona. I had heard a lot about how crowded it was in Williston, but it's really nothing but truck traffic and some after-work lines at the Walmart. The Bakken workers don't live much differently than they did in their old lives, old lives that most of them return to, either on monthly trips after many 80-hour weeks or for good once the jobs are gone. It's still crappy fast food, Walmart, cheap beer, pickup trucks and a tremendous amount of time spent watching the television.

Everything is a boom or a bust in 21st Century America. You don't have to travel for it. The risks are right there if you're not born rich. Full-time jobs are rare, contract and part-time labor is completely unreliable, and two-parent families have become another luxury item that's financially and socially out of reach for the four-in-five Americans who are always a paycheck or two away from going bust.

Ken Layne is reporting from the Bakken formation in North Dakota this week.