California's Third Largest City Having Mostly Empty Roads All Time

Antelope Valley in California is a high desert that is about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There is a plan for a city there. The plan isn’t on paper, though; it’s carved into the sand. In the eastern part of California City, miles and miles of unpaved roads wind through and intersect with each other, ending in empty cul-de-sacs. There are no houses in sight, but there are street signs with names like Lincoln Boulevard, Rutgers Road, and Aristotle Drive that mark the roads. The signs are set up among the sharp creosote bushes.

Aside from the dusty roads and telephone lines, the only things that break up the view are old signs that say the land is for sale. Some have been knocked off their wooden posts and are now lying flat on the sand. This empty neighborhood was supposed to be the center of one of the grandest cities ever created. It was to be the center of a master-planned community that would house hundreds of thousands of people and bring tourists from all over the country. The story of how California City went from an architectural idea to a 13,000-person desert outpost is as long and winding as its roads.

It’s full of big dreams, business mistakes, and federal investigations, and it ends with one of the largest FTC payouts of the 20th century. In 2023, tech billionaires are planning to build an ideal city in Solano County. California City is still there to show how far there can be a difference between plans and projects.

Even now, the city has the third most land size of any city in California. Its large, spread-out mark on the map shows how far apart goals and results are. The western half of the town is surrounded by homes, businesses, and paved roads. This half of town sits on top of a deep water tank, leaving the eastern side, which was supposed to be the center of the city, almost empty.

The Anti-Los Angeles

“For lack of a better word, [developers] really understood and pitched California City as an alternative to Los Angeles and maybe even a rival city,” Shannon Starkey told SFGATE. Starkey is an associate professor of design at the University of San Diego. He has been studying the city for many years.

California City’s builders believed that Los Angeles’ traffic issues were caused by piecemeal growth. They thought that Los Angeles, which seemed to be hitting its population limit, wasn’t ready for California’s population boom after World War II. New towns would have to step up and help out. California City was made to be that kind of city: a big, self-sufficient one in the desert. From the beginning, Starkey said, the city was meant to hold 400,000 people.

In 1958, a bold builder named Nat Mendelsohn and his California City Development Company bought about 80,000 acres of land in the Kern County desert. This was the official start of the city. Mendelssohn was the city’s main thinker, salesman, and preacher. It wasn’t new for Mendelssohn to plan villages. Before moving to California City, he built the area of Arlanza Village in Riverside. Later, he helped split up the desert town of Hesperia, which is outside of Los Angeles. But Mendelsohn’s first and only project with such a big goal was California City.

In the 1960s, Kathryn Efford-Floyd worked for Mendelsohn’s company as a sales manager. In the 1970s, she was in charge of public relations. She said he was “very smooth and friendly like a salesman.”

Starkey says that making the first plan for California City took about a year and included specifics like the types of trees in the park and the colors of the road signs. The downtown area of the city would be its heart, with room for 80,000 to 100,000 people. Six satellite suburbs, each with 30,000 to 50,000 people, would make up the rest of the city. It was planned that the city would have a golf course and a park with a man-made lake. Both of these things truly happened.

In a 1961 issue of United Home Services Club, Mendelsohn was praised: “Not since Pierre L’Enfant laid 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.”

First, Mendelsohn’s business spent a lot of money looking for water. It was planned that the city’s center would be on the eastern side, but the aquifer was under the western side. The company plowed roads and set up water systems for homes in this western hub, which later became California City’s population center.

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