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COLUMN ONE

A desert city that didn't fan out

Nathan Mendelsohn, a professor turned developer, believed California City would become the state's next metropolis. Instead it's a sleepy outpost that exists largely in the imagination.

August 14, 2010|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from California City, Calif. — California's third-largest city by size exists largely in the imagination. Drive its wide boulevards and cozy cul-de-sacs. Listen to squealing children splashing in backyard pools. Watch men glide by in their steel behemoths and stay-at-home moms push strollers along tree-lined sidewalks.

It's all a mirage.

In 1958, Nathan Mendelsohn, a Columbia University sociology instructor turned developer, acquired 82,000 acres of desert in eastern Kern County, 100 miles from Los Angeles.

Mendelsohn called his vision California City and, despite the fact it was 10 miles from any highway, he believed it would become the state's next metropolis. The next San Fernando Valley.

Today a mere 14,000 souls call California City home. Most are clustered at one end of the massive tract. It's a sleepy outpost with its own school district and public bus service but no hotel or chain grocery. The police chief is also the director of parks and recreation, and the Rite Aid is the busiest place in town.

The rest of Mendelsohn's eccentric dream unfurls to the east, some 185 square miles of mostly unpaved streets — a ghostly monument to overreach that, from above, looks like a geoglyph left by space aliens. Only Los Angeles and San Diego leave a bigger footprint in the state.

Locals call this part of California City the "second community," a forefather of today's half-abandoned subdivisions stretching from Hemet to Hesperia and beyond.

Street signs point to Mendelsohn's aspirations. California City would be classy and educated, with thoroughfares named Stanford, Rutgers, Yale and Columbia. The car would be king: Cadillac Boulevard, Chrysler Drive, Dodge Street.

People steal the signs as souvenirs, especially ones named for cars. City leaders finally gave up and replaced many with simple wood posts that suggest pioneer grave markers.

"We put up new street signs and in a week they're gone," said Michael Bevins, the city's public works director. "How many times can you replace the sign that says Ford Street? It's pointless."

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The Czech-born Mendelsohn touted California City as a sure thing. Postwar Southern California was booming. Where were the newcomers going to live? California City, with its clean air and mountain vistas, lay directly on the path of progress. The developer's radio advertising jingle said so.

"Buy a piece of the Golden State. You'll be sitting pretty when you come to California City."

Buyers came by the busload and by plane, landing on California City Boulevard before an airstrip was built. Others didn't need to see the place for themselves. Plenty of buyers were from overseas.

"Most of the lots were sold sight unseen, mostly for speculation," said Al Gagnon, who has been selling California City real estate since the mid-1980s.

In his company's 1962 annual report, Mendelsohn declared that California City's promise was being fulfilled.

"When you visit California City, you will come away with the conviction that … plans are rapidly crystallizing as three-dimensional reality," he wrote. "Words alone can only suggest what is occurring."

So what if only 175 homes had been built? The lots were there, along with the main electrical and water lines.

Through the mid-1970s, more than 52,000 lots were sold, some for as little as $990. Pitchmen worked leads, casting lines, setting hooks, closing deals.

Not everyone was a speculator, and the unpopulated desert appealed to many. Jay Sprague came to get away from Los Angeles, which even in 1965 was too congested for him. He never left.

"I came here for the dirt," Sprague, 72, said. "I wasn't going to raise my kids around all that concrete in the big city."

He remembers Mendelsohn as a born salesman. He completed his 160-acre Central Park and christened its man-made lake by dropping water from its New York namesake from a helicopter. It's still an oasis surrounded by two golf courses, but all that remains of the old Holiday Inn is a four-story skeleton tattooed with graffiti.

"Everybody liked him. He was a great guy. Happy-go-lucky," Sprague said.

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Mendelsohn eventually sold his interest in California City and moved on to new projects in Texas. He died in 1984 at age 69.

The people and jobs Mendelsohn envisioned never materialized. Demand for land dried up, and by the mid-1970s the frenzy was over, replaced with investigations into deceptive sales tactics and court-ordered refunds for about 14,000 landowners. Over the years, thousands of lots were abandoned and sold for taxes. Others held on.

"You can go everywhere in the world and find somebody with land in California City," said City Manager Tom Weil. "We have people coming to the planning department all the time saying, 'Someone in my family owns a lot here and they willed it to us. Where is it?' "

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