In 1958, a Czech-born sociology professor named Nat Mendelsohn purchased 82,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and founded the optimistically named California City. Intended to eventually rival LA in importance, California City was just one of the countless master-planned communities that sprouted up across the state in the post-World War II boom years. But unlike Irvine or Mission Viejo, California City never took off. Although it’s officially California’s third-largest city based on its geographic size, today just under 15,000 people live there, many of them employed at the California City Correctional Center. All that remains of Mendelsohn’s Ozymandian vision is a sprawling grid of empty, mostly unpaved streets carved into the desert landscape—a ghost suburb that looks from above like the remains of an ancient civilization.
“It was promoted as this extravagant development, but in many ways it failed spectacularly,” says Chicago-based photographer Noritaka Minami, who first learned about California City while attending graduate school at UC Irvine. Turns out, not many people wanted to live in the middle of the desert, miles from the nearest highway and hours from the closest city. When Mendelsohn finally gave up and sold his shares in the town in 1969, he had managed to attract only about 1,300 people to his would-be metropolis. “A lot of people bought land there without visiting it,” Minami says. “If they had actually gone, they would have realized how remote it is.”
Minami was intrigued by California City’s name and the fact that, despite living in the state for over a decade, he had never heard of it. He began photographing the town from the ground, and later from a helicopter, focusing on the uninhabited “second community” section of the city, which is subdivided into tens of thousands of empty lots connected by unpaved dirt roads. (Despite never being developed, the streets all have names and show up on Google Maps.) After experimenting with different cameras and film stock, Minami settled on a medium-format camera and a grainy, monochromatic stock that reflects grittiness of the landscape.
The photographs perfectly capture the desert’s harsh beauty, which continues to attract some hardy migrants to California City, many of them in search of the very quality—isolation from civilization—that prevented it from fulfilling Mendelsohn’s grandiose dreams. “It’s very quiet, and some people are drawn to that,” Minami says. “There just isn’t enough interest to develop a major community.”