California City: California’s Biggest, Emptiest Town

Disillusion And Divestment

Roads Desert Sky

Wikimedia Commons

California City celebrated several milestones before its shortcomings became clear. The town’s first post office opened in 1960, and soon after it got a ZIP code. Incorporation followed in 1965, when Mendelsohn was still making frequent trips to Galileo Hill to set up his telescope and gaze at the stars (no people, therefore no light pollution).

As an incorporated city, the town could start its own police and fire departments, which it did almost immediately, despite having a population of fewer than 1,000 people. Still, people steered clear of the oddly hopeful city in the desert, and gradually Mendelsohn’s visits became less common.

California City went through a shakeup in 1969, as its population crested 1,300 for the first time. Thoroughly fed up with wasting money on a patch of barren desert that was bigger than some federal parks, Mendelsohn sold his controlling share in the town to a consortium that year. For the last 15 years of his life, Mendelsohn rarely brought up the one major failure of his life.

The city didn’t just go away because its founder gave up. In the 1970 Census, California City was recorded as having 1,309 people living there. By 1980, that had doubled, to 2,743. The town doubled again in the next 10 years, to 5,955. It seemed as if Mendelsohn’s dream had just been a little ahead of its time, and that California City would double its population every decade until it really was a rival of Los Angeles.

That still wasn’t to be, however. As the population grew, water from those miracle wells started running out, and water vouchers from the state got more expensive.

By 2000, California City had only increased in size by 40 percent, to 8,385. In 2010, that number was only 14,120. In the year 2010-2015, the Census Bureau estimates that the population actually dropped by a thousand or so people, to an estimated 13,277.

California City’s New Life

California City Street Scene

Wikimedia CommonsA typical street scene in one of the more densely populated neighborhoods in California City. Housing prices here average $89 per square foot.

It goes without saying that nothing in California every really goes away, no matter how ridiculous it is. This is even more true when there’s equity at stake.

The people of California City, like Canadian ultra-nationalists, grew to be proud of their odd “little” town’s quirks, such as the endless miles and miles of slowly crumbling boulevards nobody has ever driven on, and so they stayed.

At some point, the Corrections Corporation of America blessed the town with a jobs-generating prison nearby, and canny developers turned the town’s lakefront property into something nice that could be found in any city. Approaching its 60th year since the first disappointed family bought into the community, California City now has two AAA ball teams and perhaps a bit more open spaces than most towns.

California City still controls the enormous wastelands around the civilized core. In any other part of California, these would have long ago been settled by tech workers who don’t mind a three-hour commute for a chance to save $50,000 on their mortgages, but the very remote and harsh environment of the city, combined with the tenacity of its political leadership, have worked to keep the town in business from the beginning.

Believe it or not, the town’s leadership still seems to think there’s a chance that California City may yet grow to the size of Los Angeles, a city that’s roughly half the size of Belgium already.

Stranger things have happened. . . especially in California.

For more from the strange side of California, check out the peculiar towns of Zzyzx and Colma, the city of the dead.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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