11 Failed Utopias You Can Visit
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 25 September 2015.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 25 September 2015.
Humanity is always striving to find ways to live better. Political structures grow and change slowly, though, so some brave souls set out to found their own communities according to higher values. The term "utopia" was first coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 for a book about an imaginary society that was built on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, and it's come to mean any community that is founded on higher ideals than mere capitalism.
Even though More's book was fiction, real-world utopian societies have been springing up for centuries all over the world. None of them managed to live up to their earth-changing ideals, unfortunately. Some lasted years, some decades, but like all of man's works they've now crumbled to dust.
In this feature, we'll give you a guide to 11 failed utopias that may not have lived up to their grand intentions, but still left behind some fascinating history.
1. Brook Farm
One of the most famous utopias in American history, Brook Farm was founded by some of the heaviest hitters of the 19th century Transcendentalist movement. Located just nine miles from Boston, Brook Farm sprawled over 188 acres of farmland. Residents were expected to supply a certain amount of labour to the community in whatever field they preferred, and were compensated with a percentage of profits from their farm. Unfortunately, Brook Farm never actually turned a profit, and when a massive building the group was building caught fire in 1847 the people living there scattered to the winds. The state of Massachusetts bought the property in 1988 and opened it to the public as a historic site.
Credit: Dave Parker/Wikimedia Commons
One common thread amongst Utopian communities is that they believe that the prevailing way of life is toxic to humanity. For John Franklin Noyes and his Oneida Community, that extended as far as the institution of marriage. Noyes believed that Jesus Christ had returned in A.D. 70, and we were now working to bring about a perfect world. One way to do that was with the "Complex Marriage," which meant that any member of the commune could have consensual sex with any other member. This was a big deal back in 1848! The Oneida Community lasted a staggering 30 years before dissolving, but you can still visit the brick mansion that was their main building in central New York.
3. Soul City
Credit: Tijuana Brass/Wikimedia Commons
Most of the utopian communities on this list have been, for lack of a better term, lily-white. Soul City is the exception. This planned community was the brainchild of civil rights leader Floyd McKissack, who got funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build a city from the ground up in North Carolina where African-Americans could live without the generations of racial prejudice that dogged them. Building started in 1972 but McKissack's baby couldn't attract businesses fast enough and now it's mostly a ghost town.
Typically a Utopian community will take at least a couple of years to collapse, but Fruitlands got it all done in one. Founded in Harvard, Massachusetts in 1843, the philosophy of the commune started with Transcendentalist ideas and took them way farther than they should have. All residents were strict vegans who were allowed to drink only water, and no animal labour could be used in farming. In addition, the residents were not allowed to plant root vegetables on the grounds that might disturb the worms. Needless to say, this didn't ensure for a healthy harvest, and by the winter of 1843 Fruitlands was without food entirely. The main farmhouse is now a museum.
If you had to pick a person to found a utopian community in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, legendary industrialist and anti-Semite Henry Ford would probably be pretty low on the list. But in the 1920s, faced with a rubber shortage, Ford purchased 3,900 square miles of land outside of Santarém and built a planned city to make all the rubber he could handle. Ford provided food, lodging, and healthcare to his mix of Brazilian and American employees, and instituted strict rules against alcohol and premarital sex. The locals didn't cotton too well to that, and rioted against their supervisors. The development of synthetic rubber shut down Fordlandia, but you can still visit the ruins.
No matter how perfect your utopia, you probably still need money. A number of planned communities started out as money-making schemes, and Silkville is probably the most unique of those. Founded by a French immigrant named Ernest de Boissièr who fled Napoleon's regime, Silkville was intended to make money through silk production. A crew of 40 residents came over from France to live and work there, but after a few years they dispersed to live in more normal communities. Silkville has been mostly lost to the ages, but two silk barns and some signage still stand.
7. Drop City
The late 1960s were a fertile time for utopian communes, and they sprung up all over the United States. One of the most notorious was Drop City. Founded in 1965 by a quartet of students who bought a plot of land in Colorado, it grew as residents moved in and built geodesic domes from sheets of scrap metal salvaged from cars. It became a counterculture destination, but personality conflicts brought it to a close by 1968 and Drop City was abandoned. All of the domes have been dismantled, but you can still walk around the ruins and see traces of what happened there.
8. Modern Times
The construction of the Long Island Railroad brought many new towns into existence, but none were quite as strange as Modern Times. Founded in 1851 by anarchists Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews, Modern Times was a Socialist community with an emphasis on private property - anything generated by labour belonged only to the labourer, and the town had its own form of currency. All land was private property, and there was no governmental law enforcement - any disputes were handled by citizens. This rough and ready way of life wasn't for everyone, and Modern Times renamed itself Brentwood in 1864 and shed its bizarre laws. Several existing buildings from those times still exist, including two unusual octagonal houses.
9. The Republic Of Minerva
Libertarianism isn't exactly the first political philosophy we'd pick for our utopias, but the "every man for himself" attitude was exactly what Las Vegas millionaire Michael Oliver had in mind for the Republic of Minerva. Oliver raised US$100 million to create his dream society on a set of reefs outside of the island nation of Tonga, and dumped bargeloads of sand to raised them out of the water. Unfortunately for Oliver and his investors, Tonga actually had claim to the land and wasn't happy about his whole deal. Minerva minted currency and put up a flag, but it wasn't long before Oliver had to give up faced with international law. The reefs are still there, just minus any habitation.
Here's another utopia built by an unusual industrialist - this time gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. Looking to create a community of workers for his factory, Colt purchased massive tracts of land to essentially create his own city with its own rules. Residents enjoyed provided housing, public social areas, private parks and greenhouses. In exchange, they worked 10 hour days and abided by Colt's strict moral rules. After Samuel Colt passed away in 1862, his daughter Elizabeth took control of both the company and Coltsville and continued to expand on it, but it was soon subsumed by greater Hartford. Many of the original buildings are still intact, but in various states of disrepair.
In hindsight, it's kind of demented to refer to the People's Temple outpost in the Guyanese jungle as a "utopia" considering what happened there. But it's important to remember that charismatic cult leader Jim Jones built his fellowship on racial integration and Socialist wealth redistribution. Jonestown was intended to be the last outpost for humanity after nuclear war, with everybody contributing equally and living in comfort. Of course, Jim's descent into methamphetamine-fuelled madness eventually took over 1,000 innocent lives in November 1978. Many of the ruins of Jonestown have been swallowed by the jungle, but you can still find metal barrels where the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid was mixed and other grim memoirs.
[Source: PC Magazine. Edited. Top image added.]