California City: The Unbuilt Suburb – California City, California - Atlas Obscura

AO Edited

California City: The Unbuilt Suburb

The "3rd largest" city in California is an empty mirage of suburbia in the middle of nowhere. 


Nat Mendelsohn had a dream. A city that was going to rival Los Angeles, in 320 square kilometers of Mojave desert paradise, centered around a beautiful—though not native to the desert and artificially watered, of course—park, complete with a 105,218 square meter artificial lake.

Seen on a map it might seem as if perhaps Mendelson’s dream came true, for hundreds of miles of named streets cut through the desert area known as California City, ending in cul-de-sacs, and looking much like a large suburban community has been built. It is by this metric of its geographical size, that California City can lay claim to being the third largest city in California and 34th largest in the nation. However, on closer inspection one quickly notices something missing: houses.

There is absolutely nothing lining these streets, no houses, no electric grid, nothing. The roads form an empty ghost-grid, a mirage of suburbia still waiting to be filled. Seen from above it looks almost like the remnants of some ancient culture, ritual lines cut in the desert, similar to another California desert phenomena the Blythe intaglios.

Mendelson’s plan was like that of a number of real estate developers in the 1950s and 1960s. Operating under the idea that the fastest way to riches was through owning land, developers bought vast tracts, laid them out, and subdivided the land into tens of thousands of small house plots, with the plan to sell each plot as a paradise to some young family hoping to buy their dream home. Often it worked and these formed many of the sprawling suburbs that exist today. But in the case of California city, it never quite caught on. Among the reasons are that in clearing the area for development it lead to an increase in dust storms.

But California City isn’t entirely empty. As of 2008, 50 years after Mendelsohn, California City has a total population of 14,556, living to the southwest of the vast empty grids. It also contains the massive California City Correctional Center a 2,305-bed prison and a Hyundai/Kia testing facility.  Nearby is a boron mine (California’s largest open-pit and the worlds largest boron mine), Edwards AFB where the sound barrier was broken, a Honda test track, and visit-worthy Red Rock Canyon State Park.  California City is one of the top three birding destinations in Southern California due to the Silver Saddle Club at Galileo Hill and Central Park and surrounding golf courses.  These areas attract thousands of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.  The area has also become a popular location for dirt bikers and off-roaders.

The town may yet fill up. California City is the 12th fastest growing city in California.  More information about the city can be found at

We explored California City with BLDG BLOG on Obscura Day - March 20th, 2010. Photos, stories and more here

In partnership with KAYAK

Plan Your Trip

From Around the Web