Domesticity and Precarity in the Bakken

As readers of this blog know, I’m slogging my way through the final chapter of a book manuscript that’s technically due at the end of January. The book is on the archaeology of the contemporary experience and is book-ended by a chapter on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation which has been drafted but needs attention and a chapter on my work in the Bakken with the North Dakota Man Cam project.

You can get a sense for what the book looks like so far here.

I posted two sections of this chapter already here and here.

Domesticity and Precarity

The 21st-century Bakken oil boom gained momentum at the same time as the United States began to emerge from the “Great Recession” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing revealed the potential of the Bakken oil patch beginning with the work in the Parshall oil field in Montrail county starting in 2006. The deployment of these technologies at scale across the Bakken and Three Forks formations in North Dakota and Montana opened the region to large scale oil development in subsequent years. The demands of drilling, infrastructural development, and to a less extent fracking drew thousands of workers to the region at the very time when the US economy was struggling to emerge from a period of economic stagnation and contraction. In many cases, that the sub-prime mortgage crisis played in the Great Recession and a steep rise in the number of foreclosures drew renewed attention to housing as an investment. While many of workers recognized that employment in the Bakken was likely to be temporary, they nevertheless saw it as a way to regain financial standing undermined by the loss of jobs elsewhere, foreclosures, and general economic hardships brought on my the contraction of the economy and early years of a jobless recovery. Thus, the emergence of workers with precarious financial standing, employment, and housing (sometimes referred to as the “precariat”) and the “financialization of housing” formed salient backdrop against which we understood workforce housing in the Bakken.

The large scale, standardized housing facilities that we called “Type 1” were almost always funded by outside investors. Many served to house workers from larger companies who arrived in the region on regular shifts. These man camps typically consisted of a series of prefabricated housing units divided into a number of either individual or double room with private bathrooms. The housing was typically arranged around a larger public space for communal dining and recreation. The interior spaces were typically austere which reflected their basic functionalism. The rooms, hallways, and public spaces were largely devoid of anything remotely associated with traditional domestic space or anything connecting these facilities to their location in western North Dakota. The operators of the camps kept the outsides of the buildings clean and uncluttered and this space functioned as a liminal zone between the place of work and the place of rest. Fences, security posts, and lists of rules which typically included bans on alcohol, drugs, and weapons, further reinforced the perimeter of the camps. The entrances to public spaces frequently included boot scrapers; one of the largest camps in the region included a changing room designed to provide space for workers to get out of their coveralls, heavy coats, and boots. These buffer areas not only have practical purposes, but also served to mark out the camp as a space of rest and distinguish it from the place of work. Thus even the most austere camps represent a kind of deracinated domesticity whose main function is to provide workers a place to eat, sleep, and recover for more work. Since many, if not most of these workers, had homes elsewhere, the surrogate home provided by workforce housing in the Bakken provided an functional replacement for short term residents of the oil patch.

Our Type 2 camps, which were predominantly RV parks, offered an alternative model. Like Type 1 camps, investors from outside the region financed these RV parks and at the height of the boom rent and hook-ups (utilities) were often over $1000 per month making them comparable to apartment rents in my mid-sized American cities. The facilities themselves While many of these workers also saw their time in the Bakken as temporary, they lived in RV and mobile homes during their time in North Dakota. Many of these worker were not employees of a company who arranged housing in larger Type 1 style sites. Others found the living arrangements in Type 1 camps to be too restrictive as they typically did not allow family members, banned alcohol, and had noise restrictions. Some found that the short term accommodations of Type 1 camps inconvenient because employers expected residents to return home elsewhere when they were not engaged in work in the Bakken. In some cases, foreclosures and struggling regional economies made it more convenient or necessary to relocate to the Bakken.

The resident of Type 2 camps took advantage of a less restrictive environment to individualize their living spaces. In contrast to the austere functionalism of Type 1 camps, the individual units in Type 2 camps often featured a wide range of practical, recreational, and decorative embellishments. The most prominent addition to a unit in a Type 2 camp was a mudroom. These structures consisted of a lean-to with three walls and a single pitched roof set against side of the RV around the door. Most simply, the mudroom served the same function it would in a modern home: it provided a space for a resident to remove muddy or dirty work clothes before entering living space. In Type 2 camps, however, particularly early in the boom before municipalities pass more restrictive guidelines, mudrooms allowed residents to exercise their creativity in expanding their living space. Large mudrooms were sometimes nearly half the size of the RV and offered storage and living space as well as their traditional function as a social and physical barrier between the outside and interior of the RV.

The mudrooms also fit into a number of strategies that allowed residents of Type 2 camps to develop a more complex sense of domestic space. For example, the mudrooms transformed the RV into an l-shaped building that created a sense of place on the lot. Residents often used the space defined by the RV, the mudroom, and frequently the neighboring unit for outdoor activities, gardens, and storage. Neatly arranged furniture, improved gardens, exercise equipment, and sometimes unsecured storage demonstrated that residents recognized this space as private. The most elaborate examples included fences, dog runs, and in one case a tree planted in the arid soil of the North Dakota prairie. The appearance of well-appointed outdoor spaces in Type 2 camps belies the nearly constant turn over of residents in these camps. Its suggests, however, that unlike Type 1 camps, which offer bleak, but functional accommodation for a temporary workforce, Type 2 camps suggest that some workers continue to conform to models of domesticity grounded in suburban practices and attitudes.

Our work in the Bakken has argued that architectural elaboration associated with Type 2 camps demonstrates a tension between the increasingly precarious state of workers and their effort to preserve some aspects of suburban life with its exaggerated commitment to permanence. The workforce needs of extractive industries and their penchant for booms and busts highlights larger changes in the global economy that privileges just-in-time manufacturing and gig labor where the availability of a mobile labor pool on short notice remains a key to economic flexibility and low costs. The use of dormitory labor in Asia, for example, and guest workers for construction positions in the Persian Gulf offer just two examples of the key role that workforce housing plays in supporting short-term and precarious employment on a global scale.

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