A desert city that didn’t fan out
California’s third-largest city by size exists largely in the imagination. Drive its wide boulevards and cozy cul-de-sacs. Listen to squealing children splashing in backyard pools. Watch men glide by in their steel behemoths and stay-at-home moms push strollers along tree-lined sidewalks.
It’s all a mirage.
In 1958, Nathan Mendelsohn, a Columbia University sociology instructor turned developer, acquired 82,000 acres of desert in eastern Kern County, 100 miles from Los Angeles.
Mendelsohn called his vision California City and, despite the fact it was 10 miles from any highway, he believed it would become the state’s next metropolis. The next San Fernando Valley.
Today a mere 14,000 souls call California City home. Most are clustered at one end of the massive tract. It’s a sleepy outpost with its own school district and public bus service but no hotel or chain grocery. The police chief is also the director of parks and recreation, and the Rite Aid is the busiest place in town.
The rest of Mendelsohn’s eccentric dream unfurls to the east, some 185 square miles of mostly unpaved streets — a ghostly monument to overreach that, from above, looks like a geoglyph left by space aliens. Only Los Angeles and San Diego leave a bigger footprint in the state.
Locals call this part of California City the “second community,” a forefather of today’s half-abandoned subdivisions stretching from Hemet to Hesperia and beyond.
Street signs point to Mendelsohn’s aspirations. California City would be classy and educated, with thoroughfares named Stanford, Rutgers, Yale and Columbia. The car would be king: Cadillac Boulevard, Chrysler Drive, Dodge Street.
People steal the signs as souvenirs, especially ones named for cars. City leaders finally gave up and replaced many with simple wood posts that suggest pioneer grave markers.
“We put up new street signs and in a week they’re gone,” said Michael Bevins, the city’s public works director. “How many times can you replace the sign that says Ford Street? It’s pointless.”
The Czech-born Mendelsohn touted California City as a sure thing. Postwar Southern California was booming. Where were the newcomers going to live? California City, with its clean air and mountain vistas, lay directly on the path of progress. The developer’s radio advertising jingle said so.
“Buy a piece of the Golden State. You’ll be sitting pretty when you come to California City.”
Buyers came by the busload and by plane, landing on California City Boulevard before an airstrip was built. Others didn’t need to see the place for themselves. Plenty of buyers were from overseas.
“Most of the lots were sold sight unseen, mostly for speculation,” said Al Gagnon, who has been selling California City real estate since the mid-1980s.
In his company’s 1962 annual report, Mendelsohn declared that California City’s promise was being fulfilled.
“When you visit California City, you will come away with the conviction that … plans are rapidly crystallizing as three-dimensional reality,” he wrote. “Words alone can only suggest what is occurring.”
So what if only 175 homes had been built? The lots were there, along with the main electrical and water lines.
Through the mid-1970s, more than 52,000 lots were sold, some for as little as $990. Pitchmen worked leads, casting lines, setting hooks, closing deals.
Not everyone was a speculator, and the unpopulated desert appealed to many. Jay Sprague came to get away from Los Angeles, which even in 1965 was too congested for him. He never left.
“I came here for the dirt,” Sprague, 72, said. “I wasn’t going to raise my kids around all that concrete in the big city.”
He remembers Mendelsohn as a born salesman. He completed his 160-acre Central Park and christened its man-made lake by dropping water from its New York namesake from a helicopter. It’s still an oasis surrounded by two golf courses, but all that remains of the old Holiday Inn is a four-story skeleton tattooed with graffiti.
“Everybody liked him. He was a great guy. Happy-go-lucky,” Sprague said.
Mendelsohn eventually sold his interest in California City and moved on to new projects in Texas. He died in 1984 at age 69.
The people and jobs Mendelsohn envisioned never materialized. Demand for land dried up, and by the mid-1970s the frenzy was over, replaced with investigations into deceptive sales tactics and court-ordered refunds for about 14,000 landowners. Over the years, thousands of lots were abandoned and sold for taxes. Others held on.
“You can go everywhere in the world and find somebody with land in California City,” said City Manager Tom Weil. “We have people coming to the planning department all the time saying, ‘Someone in my family owns a lot here and they willed it to us. Where is it?’ ”
But the zombie of speculation is easily awakened. During the recent real estate boom, California City’s population nearly doubled. Hundreds of homes were built in the city’s core. Late-night infomercials hawked land in the distant “second community.” Lots that had been selling for $3,000 fetched $20,000.
“People lined up to buy them,” said Cheryl Hoffman, a local real estate agent. “They were being told, ‘This is where you’re going to make your fortune.’ ”
Now those lots cost $3,000 again. Graded flat, they make good weekend camping sites. The sandy streets are popular with the off-road-vehicle crowd. Holiday weekends in fall and winter can draw 60,000 people to the area.
But the only year-round residents of California City’s empty reaches are coyotes, jackrabbits and rattlesnakes who don’t mind the triple-digit summer temperatures that turn this country into a convection oven.
“It’s a city abandoned in advance of itself,” said Geoff Manaugh, an architectural writer and instructor.
In March, he led a tour of California City that was part of a worldwide event promoted by Atlas Obscura, a Web-based travelogue devoted to strange and overlooked destinations.
While others around the globe toured one of the world’s largest pneumatic tube systems, a Victorian-era museum with 2,000 objects extracted from people’s throats or a cathedral made from junk, Manaugh and more than 100 curiosity-seekers spent the day considering the meaning of California City.
“Its monumental folly is evocative, especially in this era of widespread home foreclosures,” Manaugh said.
People snapped photos and shot video. Some posted their musings on blogs.
“When we think of ruins, we typically think of European castles and churches,” Manaugh said. “But the U.S. also has ruins. It’s just that they’re made of different stuff. In this case, it’s the ground itself and what was done to it.”
The crazy streetscape is alluring. It’s a hedge maze made from creosote bush and sagebrush. Deep inside, it’s easy to become disoriented. Midweek, you can drive all day and not see another human being. When the air is still, the silence is absolute.
“Nature wants to take it back,” said James Hanson, a California City public works employee.
His job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Four times a year, Hanson and other city workers head out to the second community to patch cracks in the few paved streets, regrade drainage channels and pull waist-high weeds sprouting through the asphalt. The searing summers and the freezing temperatures and heavy rains of winter constantly threaten to return it all to desert.
“I don’t get frustrated. I get a sense of accomplishment,” said Hanson, 50, who grew up here hunting rattlesnakes and has the ingrained tan of a man who has spent a lifetime baked by the sun. “What nature takes, we take back.”
The battle to save the roads to nowhere is without end.