California’s Third Largest City is Almost Completely Empty: The Forgotten Dream

By: Lauren Fokas | Published: Jul 07, 2024

When imagining the great cities of California, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego come to mind. Hardly anyone thinks of the Golden State’s third-largest city, and that’s because it’s all but empty.

California City, California, was built just 100 miles outside of Los Angeles in the 1960s to be one of the grandest cities in the state. However, things didn’t exactly go to plan, and now, the giant city is home to only 15,000 people.

Looking for the Anti-Los Angeles?

In 1781, a small group of settlers decided to build their homes in what is now the city of Los Angeles. The settlement grew slowly at first, with only 100,000 residents by 1900, but then, in the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Americans made their way to the beachfront paradise. By 1940, there were over one million residents.

A photograph of a busy road in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s

Source: Reddit

In the 1950s, the population continued to grow until it surpassed two million; the traffic became a nightmare, and the general consensus was that LA was just too busy. So, a development company decided they would be the “Anti-Los Angeles.”

A Developer’s Dream

In 1958, Nat Mendelsohn, owner of the California City Development Company, bought 80,000 acres of land in the desert just 100 miles northeast of LA.

A photograph of a map, zoomed in on southern California

Source: iStock

Mendelsohn was an expert in city development and believed that he knew exactly what hundreds of thousands of LA residents wanted – a self-sufficient sprawling city that offered residents space and comfort (both of which LA was sorely lacking.)

The History of California City

After designing the new city, which Mendelsohn had named “California City,” they began construction. First, they built the downtown area with a gorgeous central park and even a human-made lake with water from New York City’s Central Park.

An aerial photograph of California City, California

Source: Wikipedia

They then constructed and paved all the roads and installed the necessary infrastructure for water pipes. By 1965, California City had been incorporated, and it boasted 600 brand-new residents. It seemed as though everything was going according to plan.

California City Was $7.5 Million in Debt

However, behind the scenes, the California City Development Company was experiencing financial difficulties. By the time they incorporated, the company and the city itself were already $7.5 million in debt.

A faceless person using a calculator while paying bills

Source: Freepik

To make their money back, the company needed to sell plots of land, so they started promoting the new oasis all over LA. Advertisements claimed, “California City has a golden destiny built into it. Those who secure lots in California City now stand to profit.”

Trouble for California City

Even though there were a few sales, there wasn’t nearly enough money coming in to cover the company’s debt. California City was bought and sold several times, and each business did less and less to ensure the city’s success.

A green road sign on the side of the highway that reads “California City Next Exit”

Source: Adobe Stock

Decades after its initial construction, California City was still far from self-sufficient. Without ample storefronts, offices, or really any local businesses, there was no economy, and people could not live somewhere without an economy.


Only 15,000 People Live in California City, California

Exactly 60 years after it was incorporated, California City is only home to 15,000 residents, though it has ample room for more than 400,000.

A young couple with their toddler moving into a new home

Source: Freepik

Those who do live there chose it because the homes are expensive, they have retired, they work at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base or the Mojave Air and Space Port, or they simply bought land decades ago when they believed the city would eventually amount to something and never left.


Dozens of Streets Leading Nowhere

Driving around California City is certainly a strange experience. There are dozens of perfectly paved roads that lead to absolutely nothing.

An aerial photograph of the empty roads in California City, California

Source: Reddit

No homes fill the cul-de-sacs, there are no children playing in the streets, and there are virtually no businesses. It is essentially a barren desert with a human-made lake sitting eerily in the middle.


The Dream of California City Is Dead and Gone

Sadly, even the lake has fallen short of the initial grand expectations. The developers posted photographs in newspapers of a crystal blue lake filled with families on their sailboats, swimming, and enjoying the rarity of a beautiful body of water in the middle of the desert.

A photograph of California City’s Central Park lake

Source: Wikipedia

However, there were never actually sailboats in California City Lake as it was too windy. The lake has gone from crystal clear to the color of mud as algae has grown slowly over the years. Today, no one swims in the lake.


California City Has a McDonald’s, But Not Much Else

Additionally, while a few businesses have opened locations in California City, including McDonald’s, Family Dollar, and Rite Aid, that’s about all there is in the way of economic industry.

The exterior of a McDonald’s restaurant

Source: iStock

Jim Creighton, who serves on California City’s City Council, explained, “People complain. ‘Why don’t we have a Walmart? Why don’t we have an Albertsons? Why don’t we have a Stater Bros.? We just can’t support it with just the people in town.”


Meanwhile, Los Angeles Continued to Grow

While the developers wholeheartedly believed that they were building exactly what people were looking for, the anti-Los Angeles, without providing a thriving, stable, and populated city, no one actually made the move.

A photograph of the Los Angeles, California, skyline behind several palm trees at sunset

Source: Britannica

Meanwhile, Los Angeles continued to expand in both size and population and saw constant economic growth. While California City only gained 15,000 residents over the past 60 years, Los Angeles acquired an additional two million.


Building the Perfect City Is Harder Than It Sounds

The story of California City’s failed experiment is the perfect example of how challenging it is to build a successful and self-sufficient city.

A promotional illustration of the new city California Forever

Source: Reddit

Right now, tech billionaires want to do the exact same thing by building the city of California Forever. However, whether it will work or become just another empty maze of roads remains to be seen.