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This California Ghost City Is A Monument To Bad Planning

One of California’s largest cities is also its emptiest.

California City, California, isn’t exactly a ghost town, but it comes pretty damn close. At just over 200 square miles–nearly as big as Chicago–it’s the third largest city in the Golden State by land size. Its population? A meager 14,000. But while it lacks people, it does have mile after mile of planned, parceled out, and completely undeveloped land. It’s a veritable skeleton of a metropolis that never materialized.

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Last year, photographer Noritaka Minami hopped in a helicopter and documented the city–which is about 70 miles east of Bakersfield–from above. His black-and-white aerial images are included in On Freedom, an exhibition at Aperture on view until August 17.

Tract No. 3198 East (California City, California), 2016. [Photo: Noritaka Minami]
In 1958, real estate developer Nathan Mendelshon purchased the 82,000 acres that California City occupies. At the time, the state was experiencing a huge population boom; he envisioned newcomers flocking to his suburban subdivisions and turning California City into a thriving town. Despite mapping out and excavating a street network, staging aggressive marketing campaigns, and receiving a flurry of interest in the 1960s–as a Los Angeles Times story reports–the city was never fully realized.

“The project brings to light a place that most people even in California are not familiar with,” Minami tells Co.Design in an email. “The desert landscape became a tabula rasa for the developer to project his vision for a new metropolis. However, the photographs show the site seemingly suspended in time, clearly there to host a city in the future but also without any signs if that future will ever arrive.”

Tract No. 3281 (California City, California), 2016. [Photo: Noritaka Minami]
Today, California City is home to many of the people who work at Edwards Air Force Base and a nearby prison.

Minami’s interest in the area was sparked by how the city’s idealism and reality never quite aligned, and what this type of development–textbook urban sprawl–signals about how we accommodate growth.

“The fact that these streets in the desert are mostly unoccupied to this day should raise the question whether the water-rich wonderland proposed by Mendelsohn was actually realistic or could have ever been sustainable in an environment like the Mojave Desert,” he tells Co.Design.

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Tract No. 3282 (California City, California), 2016. [Photo: Noritaka Minami]
California, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a dire housing crisis. There isn’t a firm plan of action on how to accommodate the surging population and add supply, though there are plenty of ideas including infill development and making cities denser.

Shockingly, some scholars are suggesting more sprawl development, an inefficient and resource-consumptive form of growth. Here’s hoping that desperate times don’t force contemporary planners to fall into the same trap Mendelsohn did.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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