Ghost Town: The Abandoned Suburb of California City

Posted by Geoff Manaugh

Revisiting one of America’s most unusual neighborhoods: the abandoned suburb of California City.

Abandoned starter houses taken over by wildcats; swimming pools becoming breeding grounds for West Nile virus–infected mosquitoes; empty buildings gutted by copper thieves with pick-up trucks parked in grass-cracked driveways; foreclosed properties harboring kidnapping victims—over the past few years, there has been no upper limit to the surreal tales coming out of the suburbs. 


If we are to believe what we read, abandoned suburbs are a new phenomenon, destined to become dystopian slums, strange perturbations forming on the outermost rims of our cities. But what of suburbs that failed equally spectacularly because they were never even built in the first place?

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a place called California City. Founded in 1958 by a real estate developer named Nat Mendelsohn, California City was intended to be the state’s next great metropolis, rivaling Los Angeles in both size and economic heft. The dream faded quickly, however, and though California City is the third-largest city by area in California, it is home to just 14,000 people. Surrounded by a sprawling ghost-grid of empty streets scratched into the dust and gravel with nary a finished house in sight, California City is a labyrinth of meticulously named culs-de-sac—Oldsmobile Boulevard, Alpha Street, Planet Lane: a dream city that never quite happened.

Today, the economy of the immediate region is, unsurprisingly, bizarre. North of town is Honda’s Proving Center—a well-guarded test track for future models of automobile—and near that is a privately run prison. To the east is a massive boron mine, the largest open-pit mine in California, according to Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The city’s biggest employer, however, is Edwards Air Force Base, home to an elite flight-research center run by NASA. 

Regional lore is rich. One person who got in touch with me after hearing of my interest in California City explained that her brother worked at the base. He had recounted to the family wild tales of simulated bombing runs through the skies of the Mojave, where those unpaved geoglyphs below served as an off-the-grid targeting system for trainee pilots. While no actual bombs were dropped, the terrestrial exactitude of those dirt roads helped prepare crews for future missions in Iraq. 

Another person contacted me with tales of learning to skydive at the California City airport. As he and his companions fell back to Earth, they deliberately aimed for specific streets in an attempt to boost their accuracy. Each trip up was another cul-de-sac crossed off the list. In many ways, it is a landscape that only makes sense from above. Intended as a place of middle-class economic security, California City has become something much more interesting—an optical training system for Air Force pilots and skydivers, as well as an oddly beautiful example of misguided optimism. It is now a spatial anomaly, an unintentional piece of monumental land art, perhaps destined to someday be as archaeologically mysterious as Stonehenge.  

Satellite Image from DigitalGlobe.
 

This article first appeared in GOOD Issue 19: The Neighborhoods Issue. You can read more from the issue here, or find out what it's all about by reading the introduction.