Ghost towns dot the California landscape: remnants of places that once were, of booms and busts, and of development that for some reason met its demise. One of the strangest is California City, a swath of desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Once intended to be the state’s next great metropolis, now it’s a skeleton of streets and cul-de-sacs carved into the arid landscape and a testament to the arrested ambition of Nat Mendelsohn and the dark side of real estate speculation.
Eagle Mountain the biggest city in California land wise. It’s also the 11th biggest city in the country.
Mendelsohn—a Czech emigre, a sociologist who studied the structure of towns and villages, and a Columbia University professor—was eager to get in on the postwar development boom. In 1958, he bought 82,000 acres of land—about 125 square miles—in the Mojave Desert and dreamed of transforming it into a thriving city composed of neighborhoods for medicine, commerce, industry, and academia.
And it was meant to be a place where families could thrive: A three-bedroom house, purchased on spec, started at $8,700 and Mendelsohn built amenities to sweeten the deal, like a golf course, a 20-acre lake, a swimming pool, and recreation fields. He also carved out a street grid and installed water and power infrastructure, readying the land for buildings that never came.
Today, California City has a population just shy of 14,000. There are more houses now than in the 1970s, when the legal actions took place. There’s a golf course, a small airport, a minor league baseball team, and a prison, which is the city’s main source of employment. The eerie street grid remains. The plumbing infrastructure is still there too, which has become a problematic maintenance issue and one of the state’s biggest water wasters.
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