Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Slab City, buried deep in the California desert, is a land of squatters, artists, and migrants—and few rules. In a new book, an architect and a photographer document “the last free place.”
Deep in the heart of California’s Colorado Desert, a few hundred nomads have carved out a quiet life amid the sand. They’re uncountable by any real census, because their population changes every season. They’re unattached—living there because they’re escaping from something, or in search of something else. What they’ve all found is a place called Slab City.
The informal camp settlement sits 200 miles from Los Angeles, 150 from San Diego, and 50 north of the U.S.-Mexico border; on a swath of land first designated as public under the Section 36 land ordinance, which preserved “free public space for common schools.” By the mid-1900s, most other states had sold off their Section 36 land, but by chance, California’s 640-acre plot remained.
During the second World War, it became a site to train Marines bound for the North African campaign. On the free land, soldiers cast concrete slabs to test them for heat resistance (which they’d need in the hot African desert), lay down a grid, built commissaries and houses, set up a perimeter, and trained for duty. By the late 1940s, the camp was decommissioned, but the street names, over 60 concrete slabs for which the city is now named, and a lingering sense of military order, remained. For awhile, migrant farmworkers co-opted the space as a resting spot. By the 1960s, artists and snowbirds and squatters and the country’s homeless started stumbling into it. With them came experimental housing, and yoga classes, and RVs; but no laws, or taxation, or police force to govern them.
A few years ago, the author and architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wiley took their first trip to the site, hoping to catalogue and photograph the architecture and infrastructure of Slab City, and the borders that separated it from other urban sites and from the desert beyond it. Their book, Slab City: Dispatches From the Last Free Place seeks to answer the question: what does it mean to be free? CityLab recently spoke to Hailey and Wiley about the book and the city.
What drew you to Slab City?
Hailey: For 20 years, I’ve been really interested in how camping is a kind of place-making or is a way of place-making. I think camps are bell-weathers: they sort of tell us about things before they happen, and they give us a sense of change.
This is maybe more relevant to Slab City than other camps, but because of their flexibility but also their existence as both temporary and permanent (or somewhere in between) spaces, that they actually can accommodate conditions that other types of spaces can't. And sometimes that's bad and sometimes it's good.
In my second project, I divided up camps into categories: Camps of autonomy, necessity, and control. Certainly at face value, it’s all about autonomy in Slab City. But our question was really centered on how do the three things—desire, need, and control—mix? Slab City was one of the camps I've found that combines all those things at work.
That’s something that’s evident in every part of the book—the contradictions Slab City embodies. The city is “off the grid” but it’s also very much on a grid; it’s seemingly spontaneous but sustained by infrastructure. It’s a home for people, but it’s harsh. Its participants are trying to resist, but are also forced to adapt.
Hailey: Yes, there are many, many contradictions. The first is that Slab City really exists because it is public land, and was for a long time. But within this public space there are all these private aspirations.
That’s why, in the book, we look not only at structures but at boundaries. How do you begin to create your own space acknowledging that you're in a community, and at the same time preserving some privacy? How do you create a real home in a place that is so expansive—and in a desert—without kind of carving out a space for yourself?
Wiley: At first, we both approached the city methodically, trying to retrace the former military base’s perimeter and road lay-out and structure, sort of like archaeologists. But then the contemporary architecture of Slab City sort of contradicts that: It’s makeshift, it’s transient, and it’s quite individualized.
The original context of Slab City as Camp Dunlop was to defend freedom as a military base. And therein lay a kind of fascinating tension that also spoke about American identity and American history. We were trying to look for the meaning of all these contradictions—not just the meaning of “the last free space.”
What about the tension between control and freedom?
Hailey: There are a couple of things in Slab City that are controlling: One is the latent grid that remains from the military camp. It’s erased in some places, but it allows some degree of organization, and does give some degree of order to the place. It serves a function on its own but then it also holds all of those other elements: the things people are building, and the experiments that they're carrying out and living.
Nature, too, exacts a degree of control because it's a harsh environment. In the winter, the snow birds come down, and the temperature is a little bit nicer in the summer, but when we were there, it was 110 or 112 degrees. So it's not an easy place to live, and you're fighting that as well.
You write that the city’s “population rises and falls with changes in temperature and season and with flows of crime and economy.” It must be hard, in a city that’s so transient—and that’s both individualistic and communal—to build the kind of community other more traditional cities end up fostering.
Hailey: A lot of people go there to escape. Others go there to find other people who might share a similar outlook. So there is a really interesting mix of isolation and community there.
We see evidence of that in things like people doing yoga on the slabs in the morning. There is also a place called The Range where a man named Builder Bill is the sort of the maître d'. He's been there for a long time and every night (or most nights) there's music there. And people convene there, and listen to music, talk, and hang out. Actually, when we were there a couple of years ago it seemed to have become pretty popular for people outside of Slab City, too. It is one of the points of contact, where people from outside might join that community even if just briefly.
Wiley: It is a community of sorts, but the infrastructure is so non-existent that it’s more a community of ideas. That’s what brings them together: a sort of philosophy.
Hailey: And it really is a city of displacement. I mean, people are there by choice, and they want to be there, and there's people who go there and don't necessarily have the mobility. Even though they're transient, they may not be able to leave for awhile. And then you have the Snowbirds who actually still come down. The snow bird migration sort of hit its high point in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when 5,000 or so snowbirds or so—some Canadians, some from the southern part of the states—would come down and enjoy the kind of desert climate in the winter. They still come today.
I’m also wondering about the long-term sustainability of such a project; one without a real government, and without a stable population. You write, “Its occupants are not preservationists but they do maintain the camp’s infrastructure and curate a sense of patriotism.” Are the people enough to keep Slab City running?
Hailey: Slab City has been around for probably around seven decades which is a pretty long time for an informal settlement. So that, I think, does attest to its—if not sustainability, its persistence as a place, and a place with a pretty firm identity.
In terms of sustainability it's pretty amazing that it functions to some degree, and that people can live there with no services. People used to buy water from a guy that would ride around with a water tank. I think he still does that. UPS goes there too; and a school bus. There are kids who live there, which is quite amazing if you think about it.
But beyond that there's not many (if any) services. The makings for a whole town are there—they're functioning, but they're not maintained.
So the question of sustainability is really up to the people who live there. They recycle materials. A couple of people we met would go to some of the big box stores and get cardboard or pallets or any kind of building material like that. The solar farms that are coming online in the nearby land—a lot of pallets and cardboard come from those. And then there's others with a lot more means that can bring in telephone poles and set these large foundations up and bring in a storage container.
There's a whole range of interpretations of what sustainability is. All these experiments in living are going on at the same time. Even though there's a lot of difficulties there, it's fairly agile in the way that it forms a kind of urban context.
So it’s had this rich history, and its residents are continuing to make it work right now. What’s next for Slab City?
Hailey: It seems like every decade or so the California government threatens to close it, because you can imagine the liability that it involves. But there's always a resistance to that. I'm not sure who they would sell it to or actually how much they might get if they sold it.
Wiley: I think what’s more interesting is even if it did close down or get sold, a new city would crop up somewhere else. Slab City is unique because of the fact that it’s a former military camp, and because of its intersection between autonomy and control. That’s always something that’s going to be in society, it’s just to what degree.
Does capturing the spaces and people of Slab City in your book make it, in a way, less free?
Wiley: I don’t think so. Freedom isn’t about hiding away.