The Unfinished Streets of California’s “Ghost Metropolis”

Nat Mendelsohn, a sociology professor from the Czech Republic, bought 82,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert in 1958, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. He then started a town called California City, which means “hope.” California City was one of many master-planned communities that sprung up all over the state during the boom years after World War II. It was meant to someday be as important as Los Angeles. But California City never took off like Irvine or Mission Viejo did.

Based on land area, it’s California’s third-largest city, but there are only a little less than 15,000 people living there now. Many of them work at the California City Correctional Center. In Mendelssohn’s Ozymandian vision, all that’s left is a huge grid of mostly unpaved, empty streets carved into the desert. From above, it looks like the ruins of an ancient society.

“It was sold as this grand development, but it failed spectacularly in many ways,” says Noritaka Minami, a photographer from Chicago who first learned about California City while she was in graduate school at UC Irvine. The desert was miles away from the nearest highway and hours away from the nearest city. Not many people wanted to live there. Mendelsohn finally gave up and sold his town’s shares in 1969. He had only been able to get about 1,300 people to move to his supposed city. “A lot of people bought land there without visiting it,” Minami shares. “If they had actually gone, they would have realized how remote it is.”

Minami was interested in California City because he had never heard of it even though he had lived in the state for over ten years. He started taking pictures of the town from the ground and then from a helicopter. He focused on the “second community” area of the city that no one lives in and is made up of tens of thousands of empty lots linked by unpaved dirt roads. (The streets have names and show up on Google Maps, even though they were never built on.) Minami tried a lot of different cameras and film stocks before deciding on a medium-format camera and a grainy, black-and-white stock that shows how rough the scenery is.

The pictures do a great job of showing the harsh beauty of the desert, which is still bringing some tough people to California City. Many of them are looking for the very thing that kept Mendelssohn’s big dreams from coming true: being far away from society. “It’s very quiet, and some people are drawn to that,” says Minami. “There just isn’t enough interest to develop a major community.”

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