What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?
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!"
Superior had been Magma's town since 1910. (The town, which first formed in 1874, got its name from an earlier mining company.) Magma mined more than two-and-a-half billion pounds of ore in Superior. The town's smelter closed in 1971, but there still was ore and most Superiorites believed the company would be there forever. No wonder they went into shock when Magma suddenly said good-bye.
At first, there was disbelief. Then, fury. Then the townspeople started grieving. The recovery process should have started next. But that has taken longer than it does after a death in the family.
"When the mines closed, it was like the sun missing in the morning," says Yolanda Ewing, editor of the weekly Superior Sun and president of the school board. Her husband now works at Magma's San Manuel mine, about an hour southeast.
"People kept saying, `It's going to reopen. It's going to reopen.' My mother's like that. It will take something shocking to really wake this town up--like the whole mine up there caving in like a big pile of junk. That might make everyone finally say, `We're no longer Magma.'"
More than six years after the layoffs, many prematurely retired miners haven't snapped out of it. Several sip on their Buds most every night at local bars and still badmouth the company.
"They gave us nothing, the bastards, they just left," says Abelardo Bingochea, a miner for 26 years who does odd jobs around town. The only skill the 56-year-old Bingochea ever learned was how to mine.
Not yet old enough to collect Social Security, Bingochea's monthly retirement check from Magma of about $450 probably will be his only steady income until he's 62. "I ain't leaving," he says, from his perch at the Triple-X Bar. "Can't afford to and I don't want to anyway. This is my home."
Gilbert Aguilar, too, was laid off by Magma in 1982, but he landed on his feet. A former Superior High football star, Aguilar moved to Mesa and found work with Southwest Gas Corporation. He returned to Superior a few years ago as the gas company's representative there.
"It worked out fine for me in the long run to get laid off," says the 32-year-old father of three, whose wife works at a high-tech factory in Florence.
"But how about those old guys who never learned much English? The mine was just hard work, and those guys loved to work. That's all they knew," Aguilar says. "If you had a good back, fine--Magma didn't care if you spoke English. Now a lot of them have `retired,' and all they do is little odd jobs."
Hundreds of other ex-miners commute from Superior to jobs in Florence--many work at the state prison there--and to Apache Junction. Some mine at Globe or Miami, in what's left of Arizona's Copper Basin. Others work in San Manuel, one of the few remaining active copper towns in the state.
Those who have stayed in Superior own homes or rent for almost nothing from Magma, which still owns numerous houses and lots in and around town. Magma's Frank Florez says his company wants to get out of the landlord business. But, he adds, not out of mining.
"We still think the mines have a future here," says Florez, who was Magma's general manager in Superior during the 1982 layoffs. He now is the company's "manager of special projects" in Superior and bosses about 25 Magma employees. "There's still a lot of ore down there, and if we reopen or sell it, it would probably be on a smaller scale. But it's still one of the richest mines in the world."
It sounds like fantasy. Florez says the firm pulled out its underground power lines in 1986 and has stopped pumping water out of the mines. He concedes it would cost millions just to see if the mines could be revived. And he says it's unlikely that today's heady $1.50-per-pound copper price--more than double the 1982 price--will hold up. Arizona's copper industry is thriving, but most of the state's once-huge number of miners aren't.
"There is hatred against us and it hurts," he says, "but I think we are a good citizen, contrary to a lot of opinion. You hear a lot of stuff, though they don't say it to your face. The feeling here was that we were never going to close, even after we closed. You don't know how traumatic it was for me to let those people go.
"We had made it through the Great Depression, through everything. Then I got the word to close it up. That hurt. But Magma's not different than any other mining company or any person, for that matter. We are dollar-conscious, and we reacted to economics. Doesn't everyone?"
Sure, agrees Superior's town manager, Tom Harris. Being philosophical comes easily to the 38-year-old Harris, a long-haired native of Virginia. He likes to quote Bobby Kennedy and Thomas Merton. But he's also a doer.
"What we have in Superior isn't Magma anymore," he says. "The reality of our situation is apparent. We'll either make it or we won't. We have clean air and proximity to Tucson and Phoenix. We can make this a quaint village-type atmosphere or maybe attract another, cleaner industry. The only thing we have left here is the air. Ultimately, that's going to be our salvation, not Magma."
It sounds goofy, but Harris may be right. Superior, once shrouded in smelter smoke, has clean air and a reasonable climate. Nearby is the lovely Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum. And Superior is closer to east Mesa than downtown Phoenix is.
Property is cheap. In the past year, Tempe attorney Joe Clark has bought six buildings--old bars and a former Main Street department store--at bargain prices. Clark's plan, he told the locals, is to buy property that is "distressed," rehabilitate it and rent it.
"If we can just hold on, we'll be all right," Harris says. "Closing the mines took away this community's sense of identity. They're not real trusting of anyone anymore. Magma took so much out of this community. The biggest problem is that our best and brightest move on. Dollars talk. We're lucky to retain a social and political fabric at all. There's excessive negativism here. The initial response is, `It can't be done.' There's so much fear that things could get worse. But deep down, we know we'll survive. We're starting with the little things."
HARRIS HAD A BRAINSTORM a few months ago. For a time, he toyed with calling his idea the "John Lennon Peace Park." Then he decided to pitch it as the "Superior Peace Park." Last November, he convinced the town council to set it up at U.S. 60 and Main Street.
While they were at it, the councilmembers proclaimed Town Hall and the town itself as Arizona's first "Peace Sites." It's vague what it all means. But the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post got behind it after the council dedicated the sites "to the memory of the people of Superior who lost their lives fighting to preserve peace." In the spirit of glasnost--and hopefully some publicity--the council also sent a copy of its peace resolution to Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev.
For now, the Superior Peace Park is just a patch of ground with a flagpole in the middle. Harris informed media in Phoenix and Tucson about the new park's November 12 dedication; no one showed up for it. But Superiorites have their own reason for liking it.
"It's the first thing that's ours," says Manuel Ruiz, Superior's mayor and long- time high school boys' basketball coach. "It wasn't Magma's. It wasn't the state's. It's ours. It's kind of enlightening to do something and complete it in two weeks. It gives me a feeling that we don't strike out every time on everything."
VICE MAYOR MIKE URQUIYO glares at the state bureaucrat and says: "No one tells us anything. For all practical purposes, we're here and that's it. We've heard everything from atomic waste to God knows what. You know how rumors are. We want to know what's going on."
The packed house of fifty or so at the Superior Town Council's regular meeting wants to know about the Tailings Project: eighty truckloads of cyanide-laced scrap metal on its way from Apache Junction to Superior.
Town manager Harris bounces his six- year-old son on his lap and takes his turn. "I have some real concerns," Harris tells the bureaucrat, Ty Canez of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), "that the Magma Copper Company will see this as an alternative process, that Superior will end up as a dumping ground for hazardous wastes."
Magma planned to treat the three-and-a-half million pounds of metal at its old mill and dump the dross--supposedly rendered harmless by then--into an area near the company's existing tailings piles and waste ponds on the north edge of town.
The tailings come from a metal- processing plant in Mesa. In December 1986, the plant's owners moved the stuff to an abandoned mine near Apache Junction. Soon after that, residents there lobbied state legislators to get rid of it. Last year, the politicians told the state to find someplace else. Magma won the contract from the state with a bid of $241,000.
No Superior official will admit to hearing about the project until it was a done deal.
"I object to this going on without letting this town know anything about it," councilmember Ruben Fernandez tells Canez. "The way we found out was the newspaper."
"That was an oversight on our part," replies Canez, who is standing at the back of the room with his arms folded. "We did let the county supervisors know. . . . We think the tailings were all right where they were, but it was politics."
Superior used to have a political voice. Town merchant Jimmy Karam was a long-time Pinal County supervisor. But his small department store went under, and Karam resigned and moved to the Valley in late 1987. Superiorite Roy Chavez ran for Karam's seat last year but lost, leaving the town without a political presence. And growing Apache Junction, a suburb of Phoenix, now has the clout in northern Pinal County to push Superior around.
Another man points at Canez and shouts: "Magma is trying to solve Apache Junction's problems, not solve its own! It's bullshit!"
"We've got some beautiful environment here," adds Superiorite Artie Diaz-
Gonzales, who works at an electrical plant near Casa Grande. "We should be getting rid of the tailings that are already up there. Magma couldn't care less what's going on at this meeting."
Town librarian Beverly Burritt stands to address the council. "People elsewhere are making decisions on what should be dumped on us," she says. "Do we have the ability to say no?"
Mayor Ruiz looks at her bleakly. "At this particular time," he says, "I don't think we do."
A FEW WEEKS LATER, Tom Harris phones acting DEQ director Ron Miller.
"We have no idea what we already have in those ponds, how safe or unsafe it already is," Harris tells Miller over a speaker phone. "If we're going to survive as a community, we have to know what chemicals we have floating around."
Miller asks Harris what he wants the state agency to do, adding that the legislature probably would have to approve any major environmental study of Magma's existing tailings piles and waste ponds.
"I find it ludicrous," Harris replies, "to have to go through the legislature, where we have no pull whatsoever, to beg them to let a state agency help us out."
A few days before Christmas, trucks carrying the tailings start pulling into Magma's mill. The project, which provided a handful of temporary jobs, is supposed to be completed a few days from now.
ABOUT 45 OLD-TIMERS are playing bingo one afternoon at the Superior Senior Center on Main Street. They play on boards donated long ago by Karam's Department Store, now defunct. Each game's winner gets to choose an item of food: a can of peas, a loaf of bread, soup.
Some need the food. Others donate their winnings to needier friends. The Mesa-based East Valley Catholic Social Services provides about forty hot meals a day. Center director Becky Tellez also makes sure the homebound are taken care of.
Most are former miners or their widows and wives. Many are ailing, but the nearest hospital since Magma closed its 35-bed facility in 1985 is in Miami, eighteen miles over the mountain.
Doctor Carlos Argudo tries to make it every weekday to his clinic in Superior. But he also works at the county hospital in Florence and lives in Chandler, so his office hours are irregular.
The town's pharmacist, who lives in the Valley, often doesn't make it to his drugstore on Main Street. Pinal County used to drive a busload of senior citizens once each week to Florence on "pill day," as it was called, to pick up medicine. That practice was discontinued last year.
"They can go two or three days without their medicine if they don't catch the pharmacist in," Tellez says. "We try to do all we can for them, though it's tough."
Not everyone moans about Superior. "We like ghost towns," says Orin Foutz, a man in his late sixties who was laid off with everyone else in 1982. "Leave the pollution and stuff down there in Phoenix. We had a good racket going when the mines were open. Now we have to find something else, turn it into Sun City, maybe get the tourists up here. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind if they would just leave us be."
THE SEVENTEEN SENIORS at Jack Schertz's government class look around at one another. A visitor has asked how many of them plan to live in Superior after graduation. Jessica Ortega finally raises her hand.
"I'll come back someday, after I go to school or whatever," says Ortega, the high school's student body president and captain of its cheer squad. "I really want to, anyway. This is a really nice place for families, though there's not much for kids to do."
Her classmates also speak shyly of their plans. Many want to go to trade or beauty schools. Others say they will enlist in the military.
A hand-printed sign on a classroom wall says, "I am not here to review the past, but to present the future." The future for these seniors may be brighter than that of Superior's troubled school system.
The school district's problems, of course, revolve around money. It's almost broke.
It has fewer and fewer students. Last year's graduating class had only about 45 students, down from 102 in 1985. The high-school football team had only seventeen players last season.
Money is so short that school administrators can plan only minute by minute. One big worry is the high school itself. Built in 1924, the school still is lovely to look at, but it's falling apart. In the late 1970s, Superior voters passed a $10 million bond for a new high school. Then Magma shut down, and the district had to scrap its plans.
Two predicaments at the high school are fire alarms and asbestos. The state fire marshal has given the district until September to install new fire alarms--at a cost of $100,000--or he'll close it. The mandatory asbestos-removal program will cost the district another $100,000.
No one seems to know where the money will come from.
"If I have to beg at the legislature, I'll beg," says Superior schools superintendent Russell Hoffman, now in his third year on the job. "The last recourse is going back to the taxpayers, but I hate to ask them for a penny more."
Could Superior someday have to close its schools? "I don't even want to consider that possibility," says school board president (and newspaper editor) Yolanda Ewing, "but I suppose we have to talk about it. If you don't have a school, you don't have a community. That's it. This is too depressing to think about."
There's yet another problem: white flight. About forty high school students from Superior attend Ray High in Kearny, 22 miles away. Under state law, they can attend whatever high school they want, as long as that school's district will have them.
"Twenty percent of the kids in Superior are Anglo, but half of the students that go to school elsewhere are Anglo," says Hoffman. "That's white flight. Our teachers are good teachers, and I'm not just saying that. It's the tools we give them to work with that trouble us. Doggone it, there's an inequity. Better facilities have a direct bearing on better education."
Trying to get someone to look at his plight, Hoffman wrote last October to the federal Office of Civil Rights, complaining of a "pattern of segregation." The feds didn't write back. After Hoffman pestered them with a few calls, an official told him that maybe the Justice Department could help. Hoffman hasn't contacted Justice yet.
"What might have to happen isn't pleasant," he says. "Maybe if some parents in Superior think that their kids aren't getting equal educational opportunities or are somehow being discriminated against and sue the state, we might get some help. I don't believe in management by crisis or management by Band-Aid, but it's pretty desperate. Make that very desperate."
Superior native Buck McRae, a 1988 Ray High graduate, says he switched schools for good reason. "I'm white, but that had nothing to do with it," says McRae, who has been hanging around Superior mulling his future since he graduated last May. "I wanted to take ROTC, and I couldn't get that here. I'm going to try to make something out of my life, and it's not going to be here. Going to Ray was my first step out. I'll get out of here, yes, sir."
It galls Russ Hoffman each school day morning when the Ray district sends a bus to the outskirts of Superior. "I'm just waiting for that sucker to come inside our town limits," he says. "I don't know what I'll do."
MERCHANT JOHN MITCHELL settles into his easy chair, getting ready to take his afternoon nap. After more than seventy years in Superior, he's playing out the string. Sometimes, he dwells on the old days.
"Was a hell of a place at one time," he says. "Was."
Superior was booming in 1916 when Mitchell Tibshraeny moved to town. Tibshraeny changed his last name to Mitchell and opened a clothing store. His son John graduated from Superior High in 1927, attended the University of Arizona for a year, then worked as an underground miner in Superior for a decade. A decorated hero in World War II, John Mitchell returned home and, in 1948, opened his own shop, the one he now refuses to board up.
He resists moving to the Valley. "I won't do it," Mitchell says. "My wife sometimes tells me she wouldn't mind trying someplace new one of these days."
Virginia Mitchell, a popular town councilmember, continues to iron some shirts. "No comment," she says.
John Mitchell stares out his sliding-glass doors toward nearby Superior High School. "I tell these kids, these Mexican kids," he says, "to get their education and then get out of here. I know, maybe I shouldn't talk like that. But hell, I've been here since 1916, so I should know what's up. You have to face reality.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- New Times Inquiries Spark Change in How Arizona Investigates Drivers Suspected...
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs