California’s third largest city is mostly empty roads

0 25

Miles and miles of unpaved roads are carved into the eastern half of California City, intersecting and folding into themselves only to bottom out into empty cul de sacs. Even though there are no houses in sight, the roads are marked with street signs — with names like Lincoln Boulevard, Rutgers Road and Aristotle Drive — that stand among the prickly creosote bushes.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Aside from the dusty roads and the telephone poles, the only interruptions to the landscape are old signs advertising land for sale. Some have fallen off of their wooden posts and lie flat on the sand. 

A sign welcomes visitors to the Mojave Desert town of California City, Calif., approximately 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles, Oct. 1, 2021.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Mojave Desert town of California City, Calif., approximately 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles, Oct. 1, 2021.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

This vacant neighborhood was meant to be the heart of one of the most ambitious cities ever imagined, a master-planned community designed to house hundreds of thousands and attract tourists from around the country. Like its roads, the story of how California City turned from an architectural vision into a 13,000-person desert outpost is long and winding, punctuated by big dreams, corporate missteps and federal investigations, culminating in one of the biggest FTC payouts of the 20th century.

In 2023, as tech billionaires prepare to build a utopian city in Solano County, California City remains a reminder of just how wide the gulf between design and execution can be.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

To this day, the city remains California’s third largest by land area. Its sprawling footprint on the map attests to the gulf between ambitions and outcomes. Houses, businesses and paved roads cluster around the western half of town, which sits over a deep aquifer of water, leaving the city’s eastern side — originally planned as the center of the city — almost completely empty. 

The anti-Los Angeles

“For lack of a better description, [developers] really understood and pitched California City as an alternative and potentially competing city with Los Angeles,” Shannon Starkey told SFGATE. Starkey is an associate professor of architecture at University of San Diego and has spent years researching the city.

Piecemeal development was responsible for Los Angeles’ traffic problems, California City’s developers thought. They believed that LA, which appeared to be pressing against its population ceiling, was unprepared for California’s postwar population boom. New communities would need to pick up the slack. California City was designed to fit the bill: a sprawling, self-sufficient city in the desert. In the original plan, Starkey said, the city was projected to hold 400,000 people.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

On Oct. 18, 2023, the lake in the heart of California City’s Central Park was an algae green.

On Oct. 18, 2023, the lake in the heart of California City’s Central Park was an algae green.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

The city was officially born in 1958, when an ambitious developer named Nat Mendelsohn and his California City Development Company purchased approximately 80,000 acres of land in the Kern County desert. Mendelsohn was the city’s chief dreamer, salesperson and evangelist. Mendelsohn was no stranger to designing communities. Prior to California City, he developed the Arlanza Village neighborhood in Riverside. He later helped subdivide the desert community Hesperia outside LA. But California City was Mendelsohn’s first (and last) project of such an ambitious scope. 

Kathryn Efford-Floyd worked for Mendelsohn’s company as a sales manager in the 1960s, and later as a public relations manager in the ’70s. She described him as a “very personable salesman type, very smooth.”

An unpaved road on California City’s undeveloped eastern side on Oct. 18, 2023.

An unpaved road on California City’s undeveloped eastern side on Oct. 18, 2023.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

According to Starkey, the original plan for California City took about a year to design, including details as specific as the types of trees in the park and the colors of road signs. The city’s core would be a downtown center that would accommodate 80,000 to 100,000 people, while six satellite suburbs would each hold between 30,000 to 50,000 residents. The city would have a golf course and a park with an artificial lake — two features that actually came to fruition. 

A 1961 issue of United Home Services Club gushed about Mendelsohn: “Not since Pierre L’Enfant layed out the original design for Washington, DC, has there been such complete understanding of the need to look into the future and make a city that will still be well planned 50 years later.” 

Mendelsohn’s company first spent millions of dollars to find water. While the heart of the city was originally meant to land on the city’s eastern side, the aquifer was under the western side. In this western hub, which later developed into California City’s population center, the company paved roads and built out water infrastructure for housing. 

The 20-acre lake in Central Park, the community’s recreational complex, in California City, Calif., 1970.

The 20-acre lake in Central Park, the community’s recreational complex, in California City, Calif., 1970.

Bill Johnson/Denver Post/Getty Images

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Perhaps its greatest achievement was the construction of California City’s Central Park, complete with an artificial lake and waterfall next to soft, green grass that grew in the desert. “It was green and fabulous and it was a jewel in the desert,” Pat Gorden, the first president of East Kern Historical Museum Society, told SFGATE. “The only one in the valley.” 

For the park’s opening, Mendelsohn flew over the lake in a helicopter and dropped 10 gallons of water from New York City’s Central Park in a symbolic gesture. Central Park was a proof of concept for California City: evidence that with enough money and effort, it was possible to reshape the desert into a green paradise.

Absolute expectations

The town was incorporated in 1965 with a population that hovered around 600. According to Gorden, who moved to California City early in the decade, nearly everybody gathered in the newly built elementary school, which hadn’t yet opened, for a big dance. Mendelsohn and California’s lieutenant governor took turns sharing remarks. The mood in the 1960s, Gorden said, was one of “absolute expectations.”

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

But behind the pomp, California City’s incorporation was also a sly tactical move, Starkey said. By incorporating California City as a community services district, Mendelsohn’s company foisted fiscal responsibility for the city’s maintenance onto the city’s government. The newly formed city also absorbed the company’s debts. At the moment of its incorporation, California City was $7.5 million in the hole.

“Miles Of Raw Land Waiting For People; Area in background is to become an 80-acre lake, fed by several wells.” March 22, 1970, Apr. 17, 1970.

“Miles Of Raw Land Waiting For People; Area in background is to become an 80-acre lake, fed by several wells.” March 22, 1970, Apr. 17, 1970.

Bill Johnson/Denver Post via Getty Images

Efford-Floyd, who arrived around 1970 to work in the California City Development Company’s offices, remembers the town fondly. “It was small-town atmosphere,” she said. Her children did archery, played softball and swam in the town’s pool. She never worried about crime.

While Mendelsohn’s development company intended California City to be a city, it was also a business venture. The company’s business model involved purchasing the land for cheap, developing it with parks and infrastructure and then selling lots and homes to potential residents.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

“‘Land rush’ seen as first lot sales start to pour in,” a 1958 newspaper advert read. 

“California City has a golden destiny built into it,” read another ad, posted in the Los Angeles Times. “Those who secure lots in California City now stand to profit.”

But a land rush never quite materialized. “We always thought that this next one is the one that we’re gonna have and we’re gonna grow,” Gorden said. “And we didn’t. It’s just been that way.”

She compared the population’s ebbs and flows to “a wave going in and out of the ocean.”

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

“I am scared to death for our future dividends”

In California City’s Senior Citizens Center, a framed puzzle from 2010 commemorates the 45th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

In California City’s Senior Citizens Center, a framed puzzle from 2010 commemorates the 45th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

Building a city is expensive business. Especially when that city sits in the middle of the desert. Mendelsohn often traveled to New York to court investors to keep the venture afloat. He seemed to have found a deep well of funding in William “Billy” White, Jr., president of Great Western United. Mendelsohn sold a majority interest in his company to White, who folded California City Development Company into his newly formed and expanded Great Western Cities company.

“He thought it was going to be a great opportunity to help put money into the city,” Gorden explained, but White fired Mendelsohn as president “at the first opportunity so he could do things his way.” 

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Mendelsohn, who remained a shareholder after he was removed as president, addressed Great Western’s shareholders at a meeting. “White delegates on paper, but intrudes on a day-to-day handling of operations,” he told the board. “He handed me a dish, but no fork, knife or spoon.” He added, “I am scared to death for our future dividends.”

He had good reason for such pessimism. By the early 1970s, the corporation was falling on hard times. Great Western Cities had turned into a financial sinkhole. Some people who had purchased land sued the company, alleging that it was sold to them under the pretense of being more valuable than it actually was. In 1972, White resigned from his post as Great Western’s director. 

An old advertisement boasts of California City’s recreational offerings.

An old advertisement boasts of California City’s recreational offerings.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

Grievances over false advertising culminated in a civil penalty issued against Great Western by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC found Great Western responsible for deceptive sales practices, requiring the company to refund $4 million to over 14,000 of its customers. (Great Western Cities also had developments in Colorado and New Mexico.) At the time, it was the largest refund ever issued by the commission. 

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Shortly afterward, the Hunt brothers, who were heirs of an oil tycoon, acquired the company through a hostile takeover. According to Efford-Floyd, the Hunts only bought the company to drain its accounts, which they did as fast and as hard as they could.

Up to this point, the development company was ingrained in everyday life in California City. The company ran a newspaper called the California City Sun, as well as subsidizing the city’s movie theater, grocery store and bowling alley. Critically, the company supported California City’s infrastructure. In Efford-Floyd’s words, “they paid the bills.”

But soon after the Hunt brothers took over, the California City Development Company’s offices shuttered. “The town was basically left to fend for itself,” Efford-Floyd said. “And somehow, some way, we managed.”

A sign advertises land for sale in California City, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2023.

A sign advertises land for sale in California City, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2023.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

The Hunt brothers would later go on to lose $1 billion after an ill-advised bet on the silver market, according to the Los Angeles Times.

By this time, Mendelsohn had long since sold his shares in the city and started a new company of his own, North American Towns Inc., establishing resort communities in Texas and Colorado. None were as ambitious as California City. He died of a heart attack on a golf course at one of his Texas communities in 1984. 

California City today

Today, even if it never bloomed into a desert metropolis, California City’s population is the highest it’s ever been. Houses are inexpensive. Some people move to California City to retire; others to work at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base, mines in the neighboring town of Mojave and the Mojave Air and Space Port. Some move to live closer to family members incarcerated in the California City Correctional Facility, although the prison is set to close within a year. 

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Perhaps part of the reason that the city’s population never exploded is that it never developed an economic base of its own. “For many years, this was considered a bedroom community,” Jim Creighton, who serves on California City’s City Council, told SFGATE. 

A house in California City, Calif., sits next to an empty lot on Oct. 18, 2023.

A house in California City, Calif., sits next to an empty lot on Oct. 18, 2023.

Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

“People complain,” he said. ‘‘Why don’t we have a Walmart? Why don’t we have an Albertsons? Why don’t we have a Stater Bros.? We just can’t support it with just the people in town.” Around 2010, a Rite Aid moved into the city, Creighton said. McDonald’s, Family Dollar and Dollar General followed.

Since California legalized cannabis in 2016, the city has embraced the industry, in hopes that it could firm up a solid economic base. But the limitations of California City’s water and power infrastructure have stymied those efforts.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

“For a city that was meant to be self-sufficient, it seems like all they were really focused on was residential and recreation facilities,” Starkey said of the city’s original planners. The original developers had plans for a golf course and a park, but little in the way of plans for industry.

Top left clockwise: Silver Saddle Ranch and Club; the abandoned Lake Shore Inn; the corner of Aristotle Drive and Kennedy Boulevard; California City’s Central Park.Timothy Karoff/SFGATE
Top left clockwise: Silver Saddle Ranch and Club; the abandoned Lake Shore Inn; the corner of Aristotle Drive and Kennedy Boulevard; California City’s Central Park.Timothy Karoff/SFGATE

After 60 years, California City’s green “jewel in the desert” still stands. Central Park on a recent Wednesday afternoon was largely empty, save for a young woman sitting under a tree and another resident walking up and down its paved paths. The wind was uncharacteristically gentle. 

The artificial lake still exists, although its original crystal blue has given way to a hazy algae green. The grass is cropped short, but patchy and dry. A couple of boards on the wooden footbridge have fallen out of place. The waterfall has long since stopped flowing.

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Old brochures and advertisements for California City used to feature photographs of sailboats in the lake. But according to Gorden, sailboats never actually did well in California City. The desert winds were too powerful, she explained. Photographs of sailboats in the lake were always shot in the early morning, before the strong desert winds picked up and made sailing challenging.

“Those pictures were really somebody’s dream,” Gorden said. “They put a lot of effort in getting those sailboats out there for those pictures. But it wasn’t real.”

Source link

Denial of responsibility! YoursTelecast is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.