The best thing about California City, California, is the following line, given uncorroborated and without any intended irony, from the city’s Wikipedia page: “Temperatures range from about 33° F (1° C) to about 118° F (48° C).” Balmy Santa Monica, this ain’t. Of course if those figures sound a mite implausible, you may be relieved to know that they’re contradicted by most official data, which lists the highest recorded temperature as a mere 112°—and the lowest as -5°.
Sounds charming, doesn’t it? Equatorial summers, Scottish winters.
Climatological extremes are, of course, a fact of life in the high deserts of the West, and California City is in the heart of the high desert, just an hour’s drive from Death Valley along a barren stretch of two-lane highway. It’s good country for old prospectors, survivalists, Burning Man types, the Manson family. But it is not the kind of place you might be keen to set down roots and picket fences.
Yet that was the vision of Nat Mendelsohn, a real estate developer who bought 80,000 acres of land in the middle of the dry Mojave in 1958. His dream: to create California’s next great metropolis. The state was booming at the time, and California City was planned to rival Los Angeles for size and population. Even today, it remains the third largest city in California by area.
Not, however, by headcount. The suburban hordes that Nat had bet would flock to California City never materialized; today, seen from above, California City is a vast network of rubble-strewn streets, empty cul de sacs and lonesome main drags etched into the hard sand of the desert. Earlier this spring, marginalia-freak blogs BLDGBLOG (the work of the indefatigable Geoff Manaugh) and Atlas Obscura led an expedition to California City, during which a troupeau of writers, artists, and adventurers set out to see whatever there is to see and do whatever they it is felt like doing. The results were interesting to say the least.
Countries all over the world abound in ghost towns and still-born urban dreams just like California City—think of Australia’s own Environa near Canberra—and conceptual explorations of these marginal zones can be most revealing—I’m thinking especially of Lucy Raven’s essay on a Utah mining town in the online journal Triple Canopy last year. Reflecting on these non-sites, one is bound to consider such imponderables as the vanity of human enterprise, the false hopes and dead ends of capitalism, the artificiality of our relation to land and to nature, etc.; such was certainly the case with Manaugh’s and others’ reflections on California City, though the preoccupation of both BLDGBLG and Atlas Obscura with curiosities for their own sake all but proscribed a more critical, cerebral approach like Raven’s on the creepy community of Daybreak, Utah.
Yet California City comes with a special asterisk that distinguishes it from both Daybreak and Environa, and it’s worth observing. In a response to a follow-up post written by Manaugh for GOOD, one commenter notes that Mendelsohn’s dream for California City wasn’t born of some kind of misplaced irrational enthusiasm, the typical stumbling block of the doe-eyed American dreamer: it was based instead on the very sound assumption that the United States military intended to make nearby Edwards Air Force Base the testing location for its new B-1B Lancer aircraft. Such had been the US government’s stated intention; and if it had followed through, the jobs and money the project would have brought to the area might very well have sparked exactly the kind of growth Mendelsohn had anticipated. Tough luck for Nat, the project ended up going elsewhere.
But there’s something even more unique about California City, which is that for a ghost town it has very few ghosts—more to the point, it has some 13,000 residents, all of them very much alive, apparently undaunted by either the miles of vacant lots or the extremes of hot and cold. For them, white pickets in desert soil seem just fine, and they’re not alone: the town is on pace to grow by at least ten percent since 2000, making it the twelfth fastest-growing city in the state (and this in a state that’s seventeenth for growth nationwide—out of fifty, mind you). The city’s living residents don’t appear to have been much consulted by the bloggers who recently descended upon it, another difference from Raven’s more in-depth study in Utah. None of which is to say that California City is not a fascinating corner of America deserta—only that it probably seems considerably less obscure to the 3,000-plus families who live there.