Cigarette smoke hangs blue over the sun-soaked patio of My Friends Tavern in Superior, Ariz. It's been an unseasonably cool January day, but the lingering sun is warm enough to lure nicotine-craving drinkers outside. Now, a dozen people exchange friendly banter as loudspeakers blare out Loretta Lynn: "I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter. ..." Miller Lite and Budweiser empties line up on the white plastic tables.
Superior lies at the heart of Arizona's copper country, source of 60 percent of the copper mined in the nation; its palo verde-covered mountains are scarred by a century's worth of mining endeavors. Superior wouldn't exist without the Magma Mine. The substantial high school on the edge of town, the brick buildings on Main Street, the very culture and character of the town were all built on mining. So when the mine closed in 1982, the foundation of the local economy was violently shaken. And when it reopened in 1990, and then closed again six years later, it seemed that the foundation had collapsed completely.
The miners left, their families followed, and businesses shut down. Today, My Friends Tavern is one of the few establishments open on Superior's main drag. Even as nearby Phoenix has grown at an alarming rate, Superior has lost nearly 40 percent of its population since 1970. People here on average earn only $12,000 per year, and some 28 percent of them live below the poverty line.
One would expect the local tavern, then, to be the place where out-of-work miners congregate to complain, remembering the good ol' days when "men with boots on" roamed the streets and families were flush and everyone watched each other's back, as they did underground. A place where a guy could sit and stew in nostalgia while drinking and smoking and bitterly cursing the global economy and the mining corporations and the environmental regulations that caused this town's demise.
But it isn't. Instead, there's an energetic lift to the voices in the bar, and nobody is cursing the global economy. China has grown at breakneck rates and needs a lot of metal to sustain that growth. Copper prices have shot up so high that meth-addled thieves regularly pillage air conditioners, construction sites and even the electrical guts of railroad crossings, selling the copper wires and pipes to scrap dealers. Suddenly, mining companies are taking a fresh look at Arizona's copper towns, including Superior.
And there's a lot worth looking at: Some 7,000 feet beneath the rocky, oak-covered ground lies a giant body of copper ore - possibly the largest in North America, maybe even in the world. Resolution Copper, a division of London-based mining giant Rio Tinto, wants a piece of that copper, and for the last eight years has been laying the groundwork to bring mining back to Superior.
The industry's potential renaissance has generated a fair amount of excitement and even a little cash. One of the men on the patio works for a local trucking company that contracts with the mine; another does underground work for Resolution. Some 70 locals work for Resolution in one capacity or another. Superior's old guard, however, is not monolithic in its support for the mine. At My Friends Tavern, a group of people - all of them either former miners or people who were once connected directly to the mining industry - sit around a table trying to figure out how to stop it.
"Does a new mine even make sense?" asks Sylvia Barrett, a Superior native who once worked in the Magma mine as a mucker and a cager and now spends her time protesting the new mine. "No, it doesn't."
There was a time when Western mining towns would have loudly welcomed the return of the industry. But things have changed since the last bust, and like a jilted lover being courted anew by a long-lost ex, the old mining towns are wondering if they still have room for mining in their new cultures and economies.
"Mining no longer drives the
economy for many of these small towns," says Marshall Vest, an
economist at the University of Arizona's Eller College of
Management, "so there's an ambivalence as to whether this is an
industry they really want."
One of the people sitting in the bar today is Superior native Anna Jeffrey, a slim woman in her 40s with big green eyes and long, teased-out brown hair. Earlier, she drove me around town in her small SUV, heavy metal blasting from the stereo. She was playing the "used-to-be" game.
"That used to be the theatre," she'd say, pointing to a worn-down box of gray stucco. "And that used to be the five-and-dime." In my own hometown, as in many Western communities, such remnants of an older economy have vanished under big-box stores, or been replaced by upscale boutiques and galleries and the kind of restaurants that serve truffled mashed potatoes. Not here. Superior's streets are lined with boarded-up, abandoned husks. The adobe front of the Hotel Magma, one of the most prominent landmarks, recently slid off in a storm, leaving the flaking pink paint of the hotel rooms eerily exposed. Across the street, Jeffrey walks into the back of a burnt-out shell of a building, graffiti scrawled on its remaining walls. Jeffrey worked here in the early '80s, when it was the Apache Leap Bar. "The pool table was right there," says Jeffrey, pointing at nothing.
Just down a slope from the back of the buildings, Queen Creek runs through town. During summer monsoons, Superior residents flock to the old footbridges to watch the waters swell and rip through the channel on their way down to the valley below and the megalopolis of Phoenix. In the winter, one can follow the creek up into the canyon above town, where the bone-white skeletons of sycamore trees shade deep green pools. Apache Leap, a band of cliffs that glows deep orange in the evening light, provides the town's scenic backdrop.