Life (and Money) in a Federal Town

I took this photo yesterday while I was walking.  This sculpture was erected in the park in front of the

Municipal Building by the Breakfast Rotary Club in 1995. 



Oak Ridge, Tennessee did not even exist before 1942.  There was nothing more here than a few tiny rural communities tucked into a series of valleys hidden behind the ridges and foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in the upper East Tennessee Valley.  But in 1942, there was a war on:  a big war, World War II.  And Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt advising him of the feasibility of producing and using the ultimate weapon, a weapon that would effectively assure the end of the war with an Allied victory. That weapon was an atomic bomb. 



The Manhattan Project 


in 1942, General Leslie Groves picked three secret sites to locate the different facets of atomic bomb manufacturing. Scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico designed the bombs, so innocuously named Fat Man and Little Boy.  Plutonium for one of the bombs was produced in Hanford, Washington.  Uranium for the other bomb was enriched in my home town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.   Collectively, the entire enterprise was code named The Manhattan Project.  My parents, Andy and Jean de la Garza, came to Oak Ridge in 1944 where both worked on the project.


Originally named Site X, Oak Ridge did not shut down after the close of WWII.  On the contrary, atomic bomb manufacturing ramped up exponentially during the Cold War. And today, March 10, 2015, modernizing the current nuclear weapons stockpile, management and storage of fissile material and other work ancillary to the maintenance and manufacture of nuclear weapons remains Oak Ridge's bread and butter.  


Essentially, Oak Ridge is still a one company town except our 'company' happens to be the U.S. Federal government.


Ultimately, nearly all the money that flows through this town comes from the federal government, some directly through Department of Energy offices and other vast sums of monies through a network of private contractors and sub-contractors.  Salaries paid to employees at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant, the X-10 Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as those involved in the clean up of the city's legacy of extensive pollution, are funded by federal tax dollars. Even retirement and health insurance packages are commonly administered through those same private contractors.


I think it's accurate to say that billions of federal dollars flow through Oak Ridge every year.


Born here in 1952,  I've observed some outward changes in Oak Ridge. One of those changes is the very obvious growing divide between the 'haves' and have nots.' 


When I was growing up during the Cold War, people in general did not live ostentatiously in Oak Ridge.  Most of the highest placed and salaried scientists and managers raised their families in the old cemesto neighborhoods right alongside the non-salaried workers who were also living and raising their families in the same original government housing.  


 Even to this day, I notice that many of the surviving old timers in Oak Ridge continue to live modestly in those same cemestos or in the middle class mid-century ranchers they built in Emory Valley, the West End and on East Drive during the 1960s and 70s.  


But today, there is a wide and seemingly growing economic divide in Oak Ridge.  I don't know how many McMansions there are in Oak Ridge, but it's a substantial number, perhaps between two and three hundred.  At any rate, immense houses perch all along Whipporwill Dr. and its side streets, Briarcliff and the entire area overlooking the municipal golf course and lake.


 Concurrently with those same McMansions, however, Oak Ridge has a growing number of truly indigent residents.  The last published data showed that over half of our school children qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. 


I'm left to conclude that some people, those who occupy the McMansions, are getting a very large share of the billions of federal dollars that flow through our town.  Conversely, a growing number of residents are getting a smaller share of those monies than the typical resident did in years past.    


A relative newcomer to Oak Ridge asked me recently if Oak Ridge had always been 'like this.'  She was referring to the divide  she sensed between the average citizen and the relatively small number of people who seem to be the decision makers and occupants of those very grand houses.  "No," I replied.  "I don't think Oak Ridge was 'like this' when I was growing up."  When she asked me why I thought it had changed, I said, "There are billions of federal dollars that flow through this town every year and human nature being what it is, I can't help but believe that most decisions are based on who's going to control and benefit from how that money's spent."   

1 comment

  • Ron Bowman
    Ron Bowman
    I honestly wish I could disagree. I cannot. It was about 1949 when we moved to Oak Ridge. I was too young to recall that move.

    I honestly wish I could disagree. I cannot. It was about 1949 when we moved to Oak Ridge. I was too young to recall that move.

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