Crespi d’Adda, Italy
Believe it or not, there was a time when big companies cared about their workers. I’m not talking about providing free coffee and muffins in the kitchenette (although I did appreciate it when I moved jobs one time to somewhere did that give away those things!). I’m talking about a time when the owners of companies saw their employees as family, they saw the employees’ families as extended family, and they saw the benefits in looking after everyone’s welfare in – and outside – of the workplace.
The year was 1875. A man called Cristoforo Benigno Crespi bought a bit of land by a river near Milan. Together, he and his son were going to build a company town that would go on to help define a period of enlightenment for workers. This was to be an era when big industrialists saw more than just dollar signs in their eyes… an era that’s sadly hard to imagine these days.
On this bit of land by the river, the Crespi family built a factory and, around the factory, a small town. It was the first ‘company town’ in Italy and one of the first in the world of a trend that was starting in Europe. The houses became homes for the employees and their families – first shared and then one each. The change came from the younger Crespi, Silvio, who had spent time in England and thought single occupancy with smaller gardens would be harmonious.
The town became the first in Italy to have modern electric lighting. It had its own school, doctors clinic, theatre and church. And it had happy residents and workers.
During the fifty years the Crespi family operated the cotton mill and administrated the town, there was not a single strike or incident of social disorder. The tree-lined streets, parallel and perpendicular to each other in the English-style of planning, were peaceful and harmonious as planned. The employers had a successful business and the employers had happy lives. Who would have thought that those two things could go together?
Old Italian company town
Depression did set in, quite literally, in 1929, though. A harsh economic climate coupled with a fascist government meant the Crespi family was forced to sell the factory and the Crespi d’Adda town to a larger firm. In the following decades the company passed hands several times before finally closing less than ten years ago in 2004.
Today the town lives on. The factory’s buildings still loom large, virtually untouched since the closure, but its influence in the community is no longer the keystone it once was. Many of the residents are descendants of workers but they now find their employment elsewhere. One the afternoon I visit, a funeral is taking place in the church in the centre of town. It would be crass to try to draw a metaphor but, at the same time, I would be lying if I said it didn’t fit the mood.
The houses are still in good condition – many of them painted in bright colours with neatly-trimmed hedges and well-kept gardens. They are, in some ways, in contrast with the dark colours of the factory and its padlocked gate. Perhaps it’s more of a emotional response than a physical one, I don’t know, but the old cotton mill seems ghostly and out of place in the town now.
The company town
Ultimately it was a financial decision for the Crespi family to give up their original dream of the synergy between work and home. Maybe we can’t be too critical of companies these days for not caring as much about their employees – we live in a time when economies are more important than ever. It’s just a pity that there aren’t more people in big business who have such a broad view on the work/life balance. Sometimes it takes more than just coffee and muffins.