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California City--A Dream in Progress : Mojave Desert: The space and the expectations have been there for 30 years. But reality has not caught up with the plan. America's 11th largest city has only 6,500 residents.

February 11, 1990|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California City was to be the city of the future. A big future.

Inspired 30 years ago by the explosive development of the San Fernando Valley, the city was designed to catch the human overflow as it crept northward into the Mojave Desert. It was the dream project of a man who could not be accused of dreaming small. When California City incorporated in 1965 it became--and still is--the third largest city in area in the state. It is the 11th largest in the United States.

To appreciate its size, you have to get into an airplane.

Below, near the center of the city, lies a massive grid of highways, streets, cul-de-sacs and driveways in mile after mile of ordered rows. Everything in the 30-year-old grid is laid out in right angles: The cul-de-sacs connect to streets which, in turn, feed into highways at regular intervals.

But the grid is a skeleton.

Out here there are no houses, no cars, no fenced-in yards, no barbecues.

The future never came to California City.

What did come were lawsuits, disappointments and government intervention, all on a scale befitting the size of one of the most ambitious real estate schemes in the history of the country.

Some people did come to settle: There are about 6,500 residents now, mostly on the western edge of the 186.5-square-mile city. But the vast majority of California City, including the ghostly residential grid in its center, is still unpopulated, brush-covered desert land.

The great industries, universities, shopping centers, skyscrapers and financial institutions that were also part of that plan never arrived. The schematic of a great city was in place, but hopes were dashed that it would ever be fulfilled.

Until now.

Roland Toler was there almost at the beginning.

"Back in the '50s, every newspaper you picked up was talking about population explosion," said the white-haired Toler, 78, as he leaned against his car at one of California City's two gas stations.

"There had to be new cities. The country needed new housing, colleges, hospitals, freeways, jobs, businesses. Nat Mendelsohn knew this. He had a vision of the future."

Nathan K. Mendelsohn was the father of California City. A Czechoslovakian-born sociologist who taught at Columbia University in the early 1940s, he came West after World War II to try out his community development theories.

He converted military barracks near Riverside into two-bedroom homes and helped subdivide the desert town of Hesperia. He worked with famed land developer M. Penn Phillips, whose motto was "you can't buy a bad piece of land in California."

In 1955 Mendelsohn told friends that he was going to create a dream city out of the barren desert land and alfalfa fields just north of Edwards Air Force Base and east of the town of Mojave in Kern County.

"He would take people up on a hill overlooking the land and explain to them about the city that would be there one day," said Renate Saremba, Mendelsohn's longtime secretary. "They would just look at him. They could not see what he saw."

With bank loans and money from investors Mendelsohn bought 82,000 acres of land. Then he brought in the planners.

"They divided it into seven different communities with a reason for each one," said Toler, who was a firefighter in Los Angeles before he moved to California City.

"There was going to be a university town, a medical town, the bedroom community. Areas were set aside for light industry."

An ambitious street system was designed and roads were cut into the brush, making the grid that can now be seen from the air. A sales office and model houses were constructed, and work was started on Central Park, an 80-acre recreational area that eventually included a 20-acre lake, outdoor swimming pool, playing fields, par-three golf course, picnic areas, tennis courts, indoor sports center and community building.

In 1958 Mendelsohn began selling his dream at rates as low as $990 a lot--$90 down and $17.50 a month for five years. For a new three-bedroom house, with lot included, prices started at $8,700.

The response to his project was overwhelming, almost right from the beginning. "California was the magic word back then," said Dennis Sumrow, who grew up near California City and has spent most of his life in the area. "It was the land of promise, the land of the future."

Less than a year after lots were put on sale, the frenzy was on.

"Buses bringing up people from Los Angeles would be pulling in all day," Toler said. "DC-3s would land out right next to the main street, bringing in more of them."

"There was a kind of buying hysteria up there," said Carl Click, an optometrist in Riverside who first heard about California City at a booth at the Los Angeles County Fair in 1958. He and his wife drove up to have a look. "The sales office had a frantic atmosphere with loudspeakers proclaiming each lot sale and large board displays showing what had been sold."

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