Needles and the Damage Done

Imp Kerr, Aloha as MZH, 2003

While the Bay Area flourishes, small towns in California's interior are stripped for parts.

When the first major business closed in Needles, California, local residents didn’t see it as the beginning of the end; they thought it was just a freak occurrence. In retrospect, however, the closing of Claypool’s Hardware in 2002 was an omen. Claypool’s occupied the largest building on the main drag of downtown Needles, where it has been in business for 80 years. It was a local institution. The Claypool family, which had owned and operated the store from the very beginning, didn’t publicly reveal why they decided to close; some people speculated that they simply wanted to retire. If this wasn’t the real reason, a faltering local economy didn’t seem like a plausible culprit either. The rest of Needles—a mix of locally owned businesses and national chains like McDonald’s and ­Motel 6—was humming along as it had for decades.

At the time, the fortunes of Needles—the town where I grew up—were the furthest thing from my mind. I was far away, though still in California, in my junior year at Berkeley. For me, college had been the longed-for escape from what I regarded as Needles’s suffocating boredom and closed-mindedness. In high school I wore combat boots and listened to heavy metal. I brooded, burned junk in the desert, and fantasized about living in the big city. When I went off to college, I tried to erase all trace of my small-town upbringing. I thought about Needles as little as possible, and only went back for brief visits at Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Although it wasn’t clear exactly why Claypool’s went out of business, the closure roughly coincided with the opening of a Home Depot in nearby Bullhead City, Arizona, a 20-minute drive from Needles. This added to Bullhead City’s considerable stock of big-box stores, which already included a Wal-Mart and a Kmart. Needles, meanwhile, had none, even though it had just as much cheap, empty desert land. This was the result of differing regulatory regimes: California has relatively high corporate tax rates and building regulations, while Arizona has neither. So when big-box stores want to expand into the region, they always build in Bullhead City, never in Needles. What used to be the source of Needles’s fortune—its location as “the gateway to California”—has become an inexorable part of its undoing.

The Claypool’s building remained empty for several years, a mute symbol of the town’s growing misfortune. A few years after Claypool’s went out of business, another local institution closed: Mudshark Pizza, just a block away. Mudshark Pizza was one of the few places in town where young people could gather to hang out in public. I remember going there when I was in middle school to play arcade games and nervously flirt with girls. It’s now been a decade since Mudshark Pizza closed, and nothing has emerged to replace it.

• • •

Needles is a small, dusty town on the eastern edge of the Mohave Desert, where California meets Arizona and Nevada. On any given day in the summer, there’s a good chance that Needles is the hottest place in the entire United States—unless Death Valley, 200 miles to the northwest, is a few degrees hotter. In August 2012, Needles broke the world record for the hottest rainfall ever recorded, when drops fell from the sky on a 115-degree day. For relief from this pitiless heat, the options in Needles are few. You can take refuge at home under the AC, or you can dive into the Colorado River, which skirts the town and forms the border between California and Arizona in that region of the desert. Beyond this, there’s not a whole lot to do. It’s the kind of place that might make a weary traveler, stopping in Needles for gas, wonder: Why the hell does anyone live here?

Founded in 1883, Needles has always been dependent on just such weary travelers—many of them heading west to realize the California dream. Named after a jagged mountain range on the Arizona side, Needles was established as a railroad town where the Santa Fe Railway crossed the river and entered California. Needles served as a rest stop for internal migrants from places like Chicago or St. Louis who were taking trains to Los Angeles or San Diego, where the weather was mild and land was cheap. In the 1920s, as passenger train travel was gradually eclipsed by the automobile, Needles remained a way station for California-bound travelers thanks to the 1926 opening of Route 66, and then, later, Interstate 40. The gas stations, fast-food places, and motels clustered around I-40 still provide a big chunk of the town’s tax revenue. The rest comes mainly from the river, which attracts a lot of city slickers with boats during the summer, and the railroad, which now moves freight rather than passengers. During its lifespan, Needles has survived by serving as a tiny node in the vast transportation network of the Western U.S., whether the cargo being transported was hopeful Midwesterners bound for L.A., or cheap plastic toys bound for Wal-mart.

Today, that survival is in doubt. The town of just under 5000 people has undergone a visible and seemingly unstoppable decline in the past decade. Many businesses have closed. The downtown, with as many shuttered storefronts as open ones, feels abandoned. Few people walk the sidewalks, and few cars drive the streets. But in the past decade, no major local employer has pulled up stakes and left Needles, no natural disaster has struck the town. There’s been no obvious drop in the number of out-of-towners coming to cavort on the river. Like all California towns, Needles was clobbered by the financial collapse of 2008 and the ensuing state budget crisis, but this blow only seemed to accelerate a process that was already under way. While the rest of California has recovered somewhat in the years since, Needles has only continued its puzzling disintegration.

I’ve intermittently witnessed this disintegration during regular visits to see my family. Watching the scenery of your childhood rust and fade is admittedly a normal part of becoming an adult. But what’s happening to my hometown goes beyond some ineffable, inevitable change associated with “the passage of time.” Needles is dying a slow and graphic death, and not knowing what’s causing this has made it all the more agonizing. Naively, I somehow thought that if I could understand what’s pulling Needles under, then something could be done to rescue it.

• • •

The early signs of decay in Needles became a full-blown crisis after the financial collapse of 2008. Along with many smaller businesses, two of the larger employers in Needles—the Ford and Chevy dealerships—closed. Several motels around town also closed, ushering in an era of dilapidated buildings and barren lots. In May 2008, a local city council member who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times described downtown Needles in startling, if tasteless, terms: “It’s like little Hiroshima. It’s ­HiroNeedles.” As the Great Recession set in, unemployment in Needles reached a peak of 14.8 percent in July 2010.

In February of that year, the town’s only grocery store, Bashas’, announced that it would close. Unlike Claypool’s, the closing  of Bashas’ hit home: my oldest brother, Charlie, had worked at Bashas’ for over a decade. Charlie is in his 40s and has Down syndrome. He lives in Needles with my parents. Charlie worked at Bashas’ two mornings a week, and going there was his primary form of both physical activity and social contact. Charlie was intensely fond of his co-workers, who treated him not with the pity that so many people reserve for the disabled, but as a colleague and a friend.

Bashas’ was part of a larger grocery store chain headquartered in Arizona that was driven to bankruptcy by the recession; the Needles store was closing because the parent company claimed it wasn’t profitable enough. But when Needles residents heard this news, they launched a campaign to save their only grocery store, pressuring the city government to intervene. At the eleventh hour, city officials offered Bashas’ a two-year discount on its utility bills if the store would agree to implement energy-­efficiency measures that would, it was hoped, return the store to profitability. In a rare win for Needles, Bashas’ stayed open. Charlie kept his job.

Around this time, I started to visit more often—as much as four or five times a year. It wasn’t the dire condition of my hometown that compelled me to visit so much, at least not at first. Rather, the resentment that I’d felt toward Needles had evolved, in the six years since I’d graduated from college, into first an ambivalent fondness, and then a visceral attachment. By that time I lived in New York, so I had succeeded in leaving Needles far behind, both geographically and psychologically. Yet I found myself pining for aimless walks in the vast, silent Mohave Desert, or dives into the always chilly Colorado. I also wanted to spend more time with my parents, who were approaching retirement. I even visited during the peak of the summer heat, just to prove to myself that I could still endure it.

During these visits home, the full magnitude of Needles’s predicament became apparent to me. The town has made small attempts to combat the ever spreading blight, but with limited success. In 2011, several colorful murals celebrating local history popped up around town. They were painted by an itinerant sign painter who stopped in Needles for a while, and they certainly made the town look less dreary. But this “beautification” project came to an abrupt end when the painter skipped town with money he’d been paid for a number of unfinished murals.

• • •

The erosion of Needles is less a result of the “vicissitudes of time” than the vicissitudes of business. Before he retired in 2012, my dad worked as an installer and repairman for the local telephone company. When I asked him why he thought Needles was in such dire straits, he responded with a story about how his day-to-day work had changed towards the end of his 40 years at the telephone company. When an installer would quit or get fired, the company, rather than hiring a replacement, would distribute the former installer’s workload among the remaining installers. Eventually, my dad was working six days a week, and other installers were putting in regular overtime.

During the same period, my dad was required to integrate more and more new technology into his daily work. The telephone company used to have a supply warehouse where the installers would stock up on telephone wire, screws, and tools. An attendant worked at the warehouse. As a cost-saving measure, however, the warehouse was closed and the installers were told to order their supplies online instead. The attendant was laid off. I asked my dad what he and his coworkers, all of whom belonged to a union, thought about these changes. “That’s just the way companies are run nowadays,” he said. “They tell us they have to do this to stay competitive. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Similar “innovations” were implemented at other companies around town during the same period. Train conductors at the local railway company are on-call 24-7, and for many years, they were summoned to work by a small team of telephone operators. But in the 2000s, these operators were laid off when the railway company implemented a robocall system. Around the same time, the local Bank of America branch added two new high-tech ATMs, slowly laying off a number of tellers over the following years. Meanwhile, any new jobs created in the area tended to be at places like Wal-Mart and Home Depot—jobs that barely provided a subsistence wage, if at all.

These technology-driven changes—which reshaped the Needles job market in the 2000s—were part of larger economic trend that some economists call “polarization.” Under polarization, jobs in the middle of the economic scale are lost to technology, while job growth is concentrated at the bottom and the top. Middle-income, semi-skilled workers such as secretaries and assembly-line workers tend to perform discrete, repetitive tasks—tasks that computers are uniquely suited to do. As these jobs are rendered obsolete by information technology, a few new jobs are created for highly-skilled, highly-paid workers, while the low-wage service sector balloons. The trend increased considerably after the 2008 financial crisis, as firms used the meltdown to further cut labor costs.

In May of this year, Bashas’ closed for good. The utility-bill discounts from the city expired that month, and since the store’s parent company had failed to make the reforms that were supposed to restore the store to sufficient profitability, it closed. Rather than spend the money to make the store sustainable, the company, not unlike the mural artist, reneged on its deal, took the town’s cash, and walked away. Charlie’s tight-knit group of coworkers has been dispersed, with some transferring to another Bashas’ in Arizona, and others going on unemployment. Charlie hasn’t seen any of his friends from Bashas’ since the store closed.

In the months that followed, the city government worked with the landlord of the vacated building to find another tenant, promising to bring in a new grocery store. In July of this year, the new tenant opened for business: a 99 Cents Only store, which, alongside a dizzying array of shabby items made in the sweatshops of the global south, sells eggs, milk, and some produce. The large façade had been painted fuchsia, turquoise, and blue, the brand colors of the 99 Cents Only store—bright, garish, joyful colors whose promise is belied by the dusty tans of the encroaching desert.

• • •

When we look back at the people and places that once meant something to us, and realize that they have irrevocably changed, we tend to ascribe these changes to “the ravages of time,” or “mortality,” or some other fateful abstraction. But this obscures the material forces that produce this change. Capitalism is built on a constant consumption of the present, a slow-motion destruction of space, resources, and people. The forces behind the decay of my hometown are entirely, depressingly common, and they have refashioned countless hometowns, and countless lives, throughout the past 20 years—­indeed, throughout the 500 year history of capitalism. This pervasiveness, however, does not make the loss any easier to accept.

When I visited Needles in April of this year, I learned that a monthly farmers market had been started in a park downtown. Farmers markets may be as common as dirt in cities like New York nowadays, but I never imagined one would open in Needles, devoid as it is of crunchy urban yuppies. I went to the market with my mom. We ran into a former coworker of my dad’s, who was selling salsa that he makes at home now that he himself is retired. We caught up with one of my ­elementary-school teachers, who is also the mother of the only friend from Needles I’ve stayed in touch with. People were talking, laughing, hanging out—socializing in an aimless way that I haven’t witnessed in Needles in a long time.

Starting a farmers market amid the relentless decay seemed to me like an admirable gesture of defiance. Still, what used to happen everyday at Bashas’ or Mudshark Pizza now happens only once a month. No amount of farmers markets can change the fact that Needles has been permanently diminished. And no matter how alienating life in small-town America can be, it is one of the wonders of capitalism that it can always make it worse. The only consolation is that, while the passage of time may be inevitable and immutable, the forces of accumulation are not. They are human and historical, which means they can be ruthlessly, joyfully destroyed.