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California City: A utopian dream turned ghost town

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A developer dreamed of transforming California desert into a futuristic dream city—then came the lawsuits

An aerial view of a tiny town in a desert in California. © Chang Kim

Ghost towns dot the California landscape: remnants of places that once were, of booms and busts, and of development that for some reason met its demise. One of the strangest is California City, a swath of desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Once intended to be the state’s next great metropolis, now it’s a skeleton of streets and cul-de-sacs carved into the arid landscape and a testament to the arrested ambition of Nat Mendelsohn and the dark side of real estate speculation.

Mendelsohn—a Czech emigre, a sociologist who studied the structure of towns and villages, and a Columbia University professor—was eager to get in on the postwar development boom. In 1958, he bought 82,000 acres of land—about 125 square miles—in the Mojave Desert and dreamed of transforming it into a thriving city composed of neighborhoods for medicine, commerce, industry, and academia.

And it was meant to be a place where families could thrive: A three-bedroom house, purchased on spec, started at $8,700 and Mendelsohn built amenities to sweeten the deal, like a golf course, a 20-acre lake, a swimming pool, and recreation fields. He also carved out a street grid and installed water and power infrastructure, readying the land for buildings that never came.

An aerial view of the California desert. © Chang Kim

If you tuned into the radio in Southern California in the ’50s and ’60s, you might have heard this jingle: “Buy a piece of the Golden State. You’ll be sitting pretty when you come to California City.” And if you opened Reader’s Digest or Look magazines, you would’ve spotted ads framing the city as a “good and safe investment” with “great profit potential.”

The aggressive campaigning worked. Tens of thousands of lots had been sold through the 1960s—most sight unseen—but a few buildings were constructed. This caught the eye of the FTC, which said the advertising was deceptive and ordered the city’s developers to stop. In 1972, the developers were ordered to refund money to some investors, if the investors wanted to pull out. In 1975, investors in California City filed a class-action lawsuit against the developers, claiming they were defrauded since the developers did not disclose the risks about potentially losing money.

The California desert with a sign that reads: Land for sale. © Chang Kim

Today, California City has a population just shy of 14,000. There are more houses now than in the 1970s, when the legal actions took place. There’s a golf course, a small airport, a minor league baseball team, and a prison, which is the city’s main source of employment. The eerie street grid remains. The plumbing infrastructure is still there too, which has become a problematic maintenance issue and one of the state’s biggest water wasters.

And even they are testaments to Mendelsohn’s ambitions. He named his streets after prestigious colleges: Stanford, Rutgers, Yale and Columbia. People steal these street signs as souvenirs.

There’s been renewed interest in California City’s history. A few years ago Atlas Obscura held an urbanism tour of the city. And artists have been exploring it, too. Chang Kim, a Los Angeles–based photographer, became fascinated with California City’s backstory and explored its present-day composition in the series “Utopia Incomplete,” which he began in 2015 and is an ongoing project.

An aerial view of a town in the California desert. © Chang Kim

“Among many cases of failed urbanization and speculative development, I believe nothing better represents the complete nonsense of the failure than this city,” he writes in his artistic statement. “We’ve seen how real estate developments, often speculative, affect our built environment and the way we live in this fast-paced society...We’ve also seen how fanatic land-based investments and its financial manipulations devastated the world in recent history.”

Using a drone, Kim captured the city’s expansive grid and pockets of development, and believes the city is worth reexamining in the context of the current housing crisis. “Housing prices are historically high in California, it came to me as a meaningful contrast that explains our herd behavior of seeking quick money with real estate,” he says.

California City is from a vastly different time than today, but in many ways speaks to an enduring and elusive ambition: the search for a perfect place. Taken today, the city’s history as an idealized city and a speculative real estate investment scheme is also an allegory about the value of that perfect place: Is it about actually living there? Or is it about accumulating wealth so you can create your own utopia elsewhere?

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