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California City: check out this abandoned Utopian suburb from the 1960s

Boban Docevski

In the northern part of the Antelope Valley, at the western tip of the Mojave Desert and about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, there’s a suburb abandoned before it saw its first inhabitants. This abandoned planned community was supposed to be a part of a desert town called California City. A planned community is any community that was carefully planned from its inception and is typically constructed in a previously undeveloped area. In this case, because of reasons, the area remained undeveloped.

All that remains today is an unfinished road network, an artificial lake, and an abandoned hotel. The whole area looks more interesting from above. The uninhabited streets blend perfectly in the barren landscape and look like a modern version of the ancient Nazca Lines. These “geoglyphs” from the 1960s were supposed to be the veins of a functional city but unintentionally ended up as a form of land art.

 

The story behind California City itself is really interesting. It was a utopian vision of one man, that planned to make it bigger than Los Angeles. The City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city.

He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day, a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. Satellite photos show how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated on December 10, 1965.

Today, there is absolutely nothing lining the streets of the suburb, no houses, no electric grid. Nothing except the signs showing the street names. The empty grid formed by the roads looks ghostly. It’s like a silhouette of a city that was never built. Like many other real estate developers in the 1950s and 1960s, Mendelsohn was guided by the idea that the fastest way to become rich is by owning land. That is why developers bought huge pieces of land and divided them into small plots.

Their plan was to sell them to young families that hoped to build their dream homes.This process was successful in many cases and because of it, many suburbs exist on the outskirts of big cities today. California City isn’t one of those cases and one of the reasons for its low rate of population is the increase of dust storms that was caused by the process of clearing the area for development.

This process was successful in many cases and because of it, many suburbs exist on the outskirts of big cities today. California City isn’t one of those cases and one of the reasons for its low rate of population is the increase of dust storms that was caused by the process of clearing the area for development.

Besides all that was said above, California City is not entirely abandoned. As of 2008, fifty years after Mendelsohn, California city has a total population of 14,556, living in a small town to the southwest of the vast empty grids. In spite of the areas of the City that have not developed, California City has grown from 3,200 people in 1985 to over 14,000 in 2009.

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The inhabited area of California City / source

The economy that surrounds the city is equally interesting as everything else here. North of town there is a Honda car testing facility with a well-protected test track for their future models of cars. Near this facility, there is a privately run prison, the massive California City Correctional Center with the capacity for 2,305 inmates. To the east of the city is a massive boron mine, in fact, it is the largest open-pit mine in California. The city’s biggest employer, however, is Edwards Air Force Base. This is an elite flight research center managed by NASA. Cerro Coso Community College closed escrow on 22 acres (89,000 m2) in the heart of California City for a Community College to serve the air force base. The area has also become a popular location for fans of dirt biking and off-roading, as well as an area for parachuting training.

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The Honda facility / source

At the beginning, California City suburb was planned as an ordinary living place suitable for middle-class families, but since then, it has has become something much more interesting. A training area for Air Force pilots and skydivers, an example for failed community planning, and maybe an archeological site for future generations. However, the town still has the potential to grow. According to statistics, California City is the 12th fastest growing city in California.