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What's Left in Small-Town Arizona When the Mine Shuts Down

The struggle of Superior, AZ is like so many US towns where the primary industry and the promise of a stable life-long job have left town, likely never to return.

Photo Credit: Dorian Wallender via Flickr



The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.


SUPERIOR, ARIZ.—The year was 1982 and the  Magma Mine was closing, amidst plummeting copper prices and a bitter strike. Residents of the small town of Superior, nestled against a spectacular escarpment of red rocks jutting above the saguaro-speckled desert, were in for an economic cataclysm. The mine was the bedrock of the town’s economy; the department stores, groceries and bars that populated a bustling Main Street regularly extended credit to miners until payday. Many were in shock, many assumed the mine would soon re-open.

Tom Macias, who had worked in a variety of mining jobs, was among those who knew the town was in for some very tough times. An artist since youth, Macias began a sculpture meant to send a message to the town. Out of the rough whitish dacite stone which forms horizontal stripes across the red rock and gray-green brush of the local landscape, he created a life-size image of two figures reaching out for each other, a woman resting on top of the stone and a man scrambling up the other side stretching for her arms. The figures are thick-limbed and sturdy, evoking Diego Rivera’s peasants and workers, because of the cracks through the rock that would make more delicate figures prone to splinter.

Called "The Helping Hand," the sculpture was a plea from Macias to his fellow residents—to hang on to hope, faith and each other in the difficult times that lay ahead. Dedicated in 1982, the sculpture also marked the town’s centennial. Thirty years later, standing before the sculpture in warm but not yet overbearing March sunshine, Macias says he thinks residents have lived up to that challenge—sticking by each other as the town crumbled economically and structurally around them.

Now Main Street and the surrounding roads are dotted with vacant and crumbling storefronts, including the once-attractive stone and adobe building next to Macias’s sculpture. The population has dropped from a peak of about 7,000 to 2,800. The Magma Mine re-opened briefly in the 1990s, but only with only a few hundred employees, and it closed for good in 1996.

Unemployment now is high, young people typically leave if they can and many people are still waiting for the mine to reopen. As I’ve reported before, many are now pinning their hopes on a proposed new copper mine by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, which needs a controversial  land swap billto pass Congress in order to move forward.

Macias opposes the new mine as planned, but both supporters and opponents of the new mine agree that if Superior is to survive and regain a piece of its former vitality, the economy needs to be diversified. People need to get creative and move in new directions to build an economy based on the town’s rich history and the talents of its current residents—not just the metals embedded in the earth.

Macias himself could be seen as an example of the attitude needed to survive and progress individually and collectively in the modern economic climate – not just in Superior. but in so many towns across the United States where the primary industry and the promise of a stable life-long job have left town, likely never to return.

In the mining industry Macias worked a variety of jobs for several companies—as an underground motorman, a mill operator, and an assayer in the former Magma copper smelter that still sits on the hill just above town.

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