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California City: The gigantic master planned community that never really grew up | Bartell's Backroads

One developer's 1960s dream is the 3rd largest city in California in terms of size, but its tiny population makes it a small town with lots of room for growth.

CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — Just outside the Mojave Desert, sandwiched between Highway 395 and Hwy. 14 is the third largest city in California. Streets and utilities spiderweb across the desert landscape. 

The only problem? The streets here don’t go anywhere and nearly all the lots are empty. This desert mecca is California City, a master planned community that never really grew.

People do live here, but the road system and city boundary are vastly bigger than the present population needs. Longtime resident Patricia Gorden says one man talked her and the rest of her neighbors into moving here. 

“Nathan K. Mendelsohn. I don’t know what the 'K' stands for, but that’s what his name was,” Gordon said. “There was a sign on an empty grocery store that said 'if you want to run this store call this number.' Two months later, we moved in on Labor Day, 1961.”

Czechoslovakian immigrant and psychology professor turned land developer, Nathan Mendelsohn had one dream in life: to build a massive city. 

“He had many New York investors in the property, and they built the park first then gave it to the city,” Gorden said. 

Mendelsohn was not a minimalist. He wanted California City to rival other big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and, in a way, he succeeded. As it stands now, California City is the third-largest city in the state by land area, spanning nearly 204 square miles.

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"Build it and they will come." That was the basic idea. 

Mendelson was a true salesman, and with some flashy advertising and a cheery sales pitch, he attracted people from all over the world. After nicknaming the city "Land of the Sun," buyers came in by the busload. Some even flew by plane, landing on the unfinished streets. 

“In the beginning he had a lot of retired people with steady income living here,” says Gorden, “and the houses were cheap. I think we paid $11,000 for our three bedroom, two bath.”

Street signs, roads and utilities were built, but when California City voted to incorporate in 1965, the population had fewer than 10,000 people. When the city didn’t grow, investors left and stopped paying property taxes. Mendelsohn was forced to sell off a majority of his business shares. 

“That was then end of Mendelsohn," Gorden said. "He went away with a broken heart. He died of a heart attack on a Texas golf course.”

California City did not turn into a ghost town. Around 14,000 people call the "Land of the Sun" home. 

These days, the economy is supported by tourism from nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park and three different military bases. If you are wondering about water in a desert community, California City sits on a massive underground lake. 

“My uncle dug his well with a post hole digger 6-feet-deep to water,” Gorden said.

Medelsohn's dream of a massive city may not have come true in his lifetime, but with California home prices on the rise, who knows what will happen?


Founded in the '40s by western film icon Roy Rogers, Pioneertown is a real life residential community that doubles as a movie set.  

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