Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
With 14,000 residents and 203 square miles, California City exemplifies the outsized ambitions of post-war development.
Northeast of Los Angeles, the vast Mojave Desert has always been an alluring canvas for California developers. But the sprawling, ghostly grid of California City is a monument to the way those ambitions often turned to folly, as a new video from YouTube presenter Tom Scott shows.
In 1958, at the height of California’s postwar development, professor-turned-developer Nathan Mendelsohn bought 82,000 acres of Mojave land, about 75 miles from L.A. Envisioning a metropolis to rival its massive neighbor, Mendelsohn masterplanned more than 200 square miles of land, incorporated the land as “California City,” and parceled it off for buyers. Street names like Cadillac Boulevard, Volvo Drive, and Dodge Street hinted at the city’s car-driven aspirations.
Tens of thousands of lots sold, but many went for speculation, sight unseen. Few buyers actually developed their properties, and some even stopped paying property taxes, allowing the land to melt back into the state’s hands. Not even Mendelsohn’s completed “Central Park”—an 160-acre oasis in the middle of the city, modeled after Manhattan’s—could attract more than 7,000 residents by the mid-1970s.
Today, a modest 14,000 people call California City home, most of them settled within three miles of that Central Park—which now comprises a couple of golf courses. Beyond the core, 185 square miles of California City are still undeveloped, according to the Los Angeles Times. Most roads remain unpaved, etched into the desert sand like ancient runes. Now the city bears the dubious honor of being California’s third-largest city by area, and one of its smallest by population.
Of course, as the L.A. Times put it in 2010, “the zombie of speculation is easily awakened.” Lot prices skyrocketed during the pre-Recession real estate boom. Though values are down again, it may only be a matter of time before California City catches the eyes of developers once again.
“All that vacant land is an asset,” Jennifer Wood, Mayor of California City, tells Scott. Never mind a lack of water.