The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Playas, New Mexico


Steve Rowell of the CLUI has been documenting the town of Playas, and in particular the 230 homes slated for counter-terrorism training, creating a static, photographic index of this place that will, for the indefinite future, serve its role as a generic American suburb under simulated attack. A forthcoming exhibit is being planned using these and other materials. In March 2005, Rowell was involved in a residency program at the School of Architecture at Texas A&M in College Station, TX. There he worked with students to develop an exhibit on Playas, featuring photographs, video, an interactive map of the entire town, and an immersive virtual reality landscape using game and modeling software.

622 Playas sits and waits for its day in the sun. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

623 View of some of the hundreds of empty homes in Playas, NM. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

OVER THE COURSE OF TIME, towns and cities eventually die. Since the dawn of the 21st century, an increasing number of towns in America’s underpopulated areas have been suffering this fate as plants, mills, mines, and high-tech firms shut down operations. Despite this and despite the receding U.S. economy, the industries of defense and disaster preparedness are flourishing, reversing this trend in some of the most remote areas of the nation. The war on terror is redefining the American pastoral in an unexpected way.

Situated in a remote desert valley 40 miles from the US/Mexico border is a modern ghost town once again in full bloom as a counter-terrorism training facility. Playas, New Mexico is a company town built in 1971 by the Phelps-Dodge Corporation to support its nearby copper smelting operations. The geographic location was ideal due to its isolation from populated areas sensitive to the toxic byproducts of ore smelting. After a brief life of only 28 years, the copper industry plummeted, and the smelter’s location at the dead end of a long road became an unaffordable liability.

625 Department of Homeland Security helicopters and student troops assault empty homes during the inaugural simulation event in December 2004. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

Along with the plant closure in 1999, went the town as well. The majority of the residents of Playas relocated elsewhere while a few families were re-trained as caretakers during the slow dismantling process of the plant. These caretakers have clustered in homes near the community center, creating an almost urban density, unintended when the town was planned, leaving the bulk of the homes exposed and empty, tempting to illegal immigrants who camp in them while on their way elsewhere. As a town, Playas is now lifeless, with no work, empty streets and barren homes. But as a place, it is bristling with law enforcement and the occasional well planned explosion of a simulated terrorist attack.

In 2004 New Mexico Tech (NMT) purchased Playas outright from Phelps-Dodge, using a $5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to begin converting the town into the nation’s primary counter-terrorism training facility. Training will include first responder and hostage negotiation, urban warfare and WMD exercises (including simulated nuclear, chemical and biological attacks) as well as terrorism related border security programs. Citizens of Playas and surrounding areas, indeed much of New Mexico, are thrilled at this much needed inflow of cash and jobs. The nation’s burden of war and debt has a direct, positive effect on this corner of the union.

624 Amenities for clients include curb side garbage collection. During February 2005, a division of the Alaskan Army Cavalry was stationed here as paying clients, learning how to install + defend road blocks against insurgents in Iraq. CLUI photo by Steve RowellArchitecturally homogenous in its buildings’ minimal facades, the town consists of 260 homes spread evenly down curving roads with cul-de-sacs and sidewalks. These features, more typical of a suburb, make Playas anomalous, whereas other isolated desert towns consist primarily of dirt roads and RVs as their de-facto plan. Playas also includes all of the infrastructure and civic elements of a suburb: an apartment complex, two churches, parks, a bank, and a community center which features a fully functioning bowling alley, diner, and fitness room.

626 Playas town square resembles more of an office park than a company town. Seen here is the grocery store (now closed.) CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

627 Home exterior. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

As time passed many of the homes began to give way to the entropy that the harsh desert climate brings. Playas, like many other desert towns of the American West, was destined to become another ghost, but of a slightly different vintage than its 19th century cousins. If not for this recent and dramatic change of land ownership, a future scenario might have included treasure seekers scouring the dry plain in hopes of finding a shattered bowling pin, a fragment of gilded mirror or section of fossilized shag carpet from a faux adobe home.

628 Home interior. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

The transition from company town to terror town is not only unique, but geographically of interest. Such operations flourish when removed from the public arena. Regular explosions and mock raids designed to resemble biological, chemical, and/or radiological attacks are too provocative for populated areas. Being isolated from the nearest major city by 130 miles (El Paso, TX) but only 20 miles line-of-sight from the US/Mexico border provides an unintended attraction. Mexicans crossing this arid and inhospitable segment of the border refer to the mothballed smelter as “La estrella del Norte” or the North Star using its flashing aviation beacon as a navigational reference.

629 The larger of two parks appears to be maintained fairly well. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

Playas sits curiously between nation, state, and county borders, surrounded by the continental divide that winds both east and west of the town. This is a dystopic playground of potential future disaster that lies on the fringe of the romantic Southwest. Bracketed by ruins of native civilizations and the cold war, by petroglyphs in cliff dwellings and decaying isotopes beneath the crust where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated, Playas sits and waits for its day in the sun.