The Secrets Behind California City Desert Town Revealed

Emily Guerin was interested in California City, a small town in the Mojave Desert 100 miles north of Los Angeles with a bold name. From the beginning, California City seemed strange.

“It started out as a simple story about water. Why does this desert town waste so much?” What Guerin says. “The answer was that he saw things. He put in all these water lines, but no one came to cut them in. Now they’re breaking.

Nat Mendelsohn, the developer, did have a plan. He planned a city in the desert, gave the roads names, and built them. Some of the names of the roads are Cadillac Drive and Gold Rush Avenue. Even though it was out in the middle of a desert and far away, he put in water lines for the city he dreamed would grow there.

“Many people bought land from him, but not many ever came,” Guerin says. It wasn’t meant to be empty, that much was clear. There was a lot of water waste because the developer put in water lines that were not being used and were rusting and breaking. They were having these strange pipe breaks. From the start, I was interested in it as an environmental story about how stupid people are and how their attempts to develop the desert led to terrible waste.

Guerin made California City, a new podcast from public radio station KPCC and LAist Studios, because she was interested in this desert town and its strange past. As Guerin drove around California City and talked to people to learn more about its water problems, she heard other stories as well. For example, real estate agents were trying to get people to buy into this supposed boomtown by saying it could become another Las Vegas.

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She talked to six people, and all of them told the same story: The new builder in California City, Silver Saddle Ranch and Club, was going after Latino, Filipino, and Chinese-American people. People who want to invest would meet a person who “looked like you and spoke your language.” They would show off the views, drive up to Galileo Hill, and tell the client to picture a city with bright lights and plenty of money stretching as far as the eye could see. They would also tell the client about a friend who bought property in Las Vegas when it was still a desert, and that property is now the Bellagio or another resort.

“Many of the people I talked to said the company was targeting people who might not speak English as their first language or who had just moved to the U.S.,” Guerin says. “They were putting a lot of pressure on people to buy something they didn’t really understand.” I heard this story from six different people and thought, “This is weird, there must be something here.” It turned out to be.”

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