In 1958, real estate developer and sociology professor, Nat Mendelsohn, purchased 82,000 acres of the Mojave Desert. At the time, real estate was hard to come by at an affordable price in nearby Los Angeles and the Fernando Valley.
Mendelsohn envisioned an entirely new city in the desert that would rival other large cities in the state. It was and still is the 3rd largest city by area in the state and the 11th largest by area in the nation, but the number of people living there now doesn’t match its size.
A massive grid was laid out by planners, complete with cul-de-sacs, roads, and access points to the highway. Developers, investors, and speculators flocked to the land and began buying up the new tracts that had been divided up for new homes. They hoped they could cash in on the housing boom and sell the plots for a sizable profit. Even everyday people started arriving by the busload to buy their dream plot at a reduced price, as low as $990 per lot with $90 down and $17.50 per month for five years.
The design of the new city had enough area for 51,000 plots and included a place in the main part of the city called Central Park. It was constructed and had an artificial lake, golf course, pool, picnic areas, a sports center, and tennis courts. There was also going to be seven distinct communities, each with its own focus, but that vision was never realized.
But the hoards of people who were supposed to settle in the 186.5 square-mile new city never materialized, and large businesses never set up shop, except for one cement plant. Companies were even offered land at $1 an acre but no would take the chance. Ten years later, California City appeared to be nothing but a shell, and the population was 1,700. What was left was a barren skeleton of neatly paved dirt roads adorned with white posts of street names that would never be used. The bubble had burst on California City, if it had even got that far.
In 1965, the city was incorporated, and by 1969, the city had only 1,700 residents. Mendelsohn sold his stake in California City in the same year to Great Western Union Corporation, a sugar and mining company, for $27.4 million in stock. Great Western Union also tried to sell the plots of land but was ultimately unsuccessful. Nobody wanted to buy.
In 1974, Great Western was acquired by two Texas brothers named Nelson and William Hunt. They really wanted access to Great Western’s sugar beet fields. They got what they wanted, but the huge plot of land in California was also included in the deal. It ended up causing them a lot of problems.
Right after the Hunts took over the land, the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation on the sales tactics that had taken place earlier in California City. The Hunts agreed to settle with the government and paid a $50,000 penalty, $4 million in the form of a refund to buyers from 1972 on, and millions to improve the infrastructure such as water and power.
The Hunt brothers ran into more problems aside from California City when they tried to corner the silver market in the 1970s. Their stake imploded with the stock market crash in March 1980 which forced them into bankruptcy, and with it, their stake in California City.
California City wasn’t completely abandoned, however. According to the 2010 census, the city now has 14,120 residents. It has a PGA golf course, a prison, an airport, its previously mentioned Central Park, and many people that live in California City work at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. The city even has its own minor league baseball team.
Sources: LA Times, CBS Sacramento, KCET, Dallas Business Journal