What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?

The problems of straightening up in Superior

John Mitchell's clothing store in downtown Superior is suspended in time.
Three-piece suits hang in neat rows. Stacks of shirts rest on a display table. The cash register sits on a counter near the front door. The store looks open for business, but it's not. Mitchell's was an anchor on Main Street. It served the thousands of people who worked at Magma Copper Company's mines next to this old town, which sits in the mountains only a half-hour from the eastern edge of the Valley.

As Magma went, so went Superior. Then one day, Magma went.
On August 15, 1982, Magma abruptly laid off 1,200 workers, almost all of whom lived in the town. The company said it couldn't compete anymore with foreign producers because of the rising costs of mining low-grade ore.

John Mitchell closed his store in 1987, forced to join others who couldn't make it after Magma left.

Most of Main Street is boarded up now, covered with graffiti and last year's political posters. But not Mitchell's store. Though he doesn't plan to reopen it, the eighty-year-old Mitchell won't board it up. And he won't shut off the water and electricity.

He talks tough: "I didn't want to close down, but I had to, okay? There's no business on Main Street anymore, none to speak of. But that son of a bitch store of mine put our three kids through college. I'm sure as hell not going to just give it away. You never know what might happen."

One place still open on Main Street is the Community Full-Gospel Church. You can slip prayer requests through a slot in the church's front door. Occasionally, someone does.

Others, however, still look to Magma for salvation.
"Magma will be back, I'm pretty sure of it," says Tony Munoz, who mined underground for forty years before the company laid him off. "That will get us back to where we used to be, you watch."

Munoz, 62, has time to gripe. Sometimes his La Esquina Restaurant at Main Street and Magma Avenue doesn't do enough business to cover his $250 monthly rent.

"I can't close," Munoz says, gesturing down empty Main. "If we all close down, it's gonna look like a ghost town here. I've got to hold on. If the mine reopens, I'd apply tomorrow. I'd like to die underground, nice and peaceful, not too hot, not too cold. But I guess if Magma don't come back, I'll just keep on doing this."

SUPERIOR USED TO be macho. A former resident brags that when his future wife told her parents she was dating a boy from Superior, they warned her to watch out. The blue-collar town had a brutish reputation. Its high-school football team used to play its home games on a rocky dirt field--and rarely lost.

That tough-guy image has changed since Magma pulled out. These days, the town bills itself as, of all things, Arizona's first official Peace Site. But the town's 4,300 residents--down about 14 percent since the mines closed--have to worry more about eating than about world peace.

Unemployment is rampant. Almost two of three Superior families now have low-to- moderate incomes--$18,900 per year for a family of six--compared with one of three before Magma closed.

"A little piece of me dies every time I go home," says Joe Diaz, a guidance counselor at Mesa Mountain View High School. Diaz is a member of United Superiorites, a group of about 100 former residents who donate scholarships to Superior High graduates.

"It hurts me spiritually and emotionally. The people are confused, and there's a lot of infighting. They're down, but they're so proud, they don't let on. Like my mom and dad. But they won't say die. This town won't say die. It won't die. I guarantee it. They can make it without Magma."

Superior has about every ailment a town can catch. Its residents have to deal with impoverishment, the highest property tax rate in the state and a shrinking, strapped school system. Those who may qualify for food stamps have to apply in Globe, 24 miles away. Magma has closed its town hospital. All the hotels are shut. The last picture show was more than a decade ago.

The latest thing to come to Superior was more than three million pounds of cyanide-laden waste that another town didn't want.

It's not that Superior is waiting to die. This happened one week during the Christmas holidays: Dozens took karate classes at the former Belmont Hotel, once famed as a whorehouse. (Superior still is a pretty tough town.) A new volleyball league held its season-ending tournament. A high-school basketball game nearly sold out. Police Chief Bob Lowe recited Pinocchio at the library to a group of not-so-rapt kids. Residents donated hundreds of holiday gifts to the town's needy senior citizens. Ballet Folklorica Alma de Superior director Rosanna Diaz-Gonzales practiced with her dancers, about fifty local boys and girls.

And Mario Terrazas, a local roofer in his late twenties, hollered down at a visitor from atop a Main Street building: "Everybody thinks we're done for! But we're gonna come back when you least expect it! We're not that sick!"

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