California "City"
November 25, 2009 1:44 PM   Subscribe

California City is the 3rd largest city in California (geographically), home to California's largest open-pit boron mine, a privately-run Federal Prison, and only 8,835 residents. Originally planned as a "large master-planned leisure community" of up to 1 million people, such growth never materialized, and the remains of the undeveloped streets and cul-de-sacs presage images of the current housing crisis, and are a modern, uniquely American version of the Nazca Lines.
posted by joshwa (46 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
In thousands of years, the California City Lines will be interpreted as describing our "primitive" circuitry designs - from our alien overlords.
posted by _paegan_ at 1:51 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you're laying out a city in advance of it being built, why in the hell wouldn't you lay it out in a nice square grid system?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:57 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've long wanted to just purchase one of those lots. Just to have one. Great post!
posted by chimaera at 1:57 PM on November 25, 2009


If you're laying out a city in advance of it being built, why in the hell wouldn't you lay it out in a nice square grid system?

Horrible horrible awful city planning. But you almost can't blame them, a lot of people like that sort of thing.

A lot of sad people out there that feel that having a house out in a cul-de-sac subdivision should be their goal in life. The American Dream.

Luckily, people that want their sadvilles can have them and keep rents in the civilized world down for the rest of us. I can't imagine what's going to happen if energy prices ever go so high that living in suburbs and exurbs is no longer economically feasible, and the masses descend upon us in the cities.
posted by floam at 2:07 PM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you're laying out a city in advance of it being built, why in the hell wouldn't you lay it out in a nice square grid system?

Most of the new subdivisions are planned in more of a bronchial branching system.
It's more secure. There's no traffic trying to just get through. Anybody on your street either lives there, is visiting, or has business on the street.
posted by Balisong at 2:17 PM on November 25, 2009


Or got lost trying to find their way out of the goddamn fucking maze.
posted by ryanrs at 2:20 PM on November 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


I've heard it's very boron there.
posted by exogenous at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The release of SimCity in 1989 prevented the master-planned city from ever attempted in real life again.
posted by meowzilla at 2:31 PM on November 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


err, "ever being attempted".
posted by meowzilla at 2:31 PM on November 25, 2009


Most of the new subdivisions are planned in more of a bronchial branching system.

I think you meant to say it's perceived to be more safe. Anybody on your street either lives there, is ivisiting, has business on the street, or is up to no good. On a regular system of streets and avenues, you've also got pedestrians around that aren't up to no good. With a cul-de-sac system it's harder for anybody to notice somebody injured that needs help, or notice somebody breaking into a home. And you really lose the ability for police to effectively patrol the area.

It's harder and slower for firetrucks and ambulances to get to somebody that needs help in these subdivisions.

You've also got the decreased safety from a system that basically requires people get in their cars for everything. People die in cars, children are hit by cars.

This NPR article is a decent primer.
posted by floam at 2:34 PM on November 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


In an even more eerie turn, two thirds of every car entering California City mysteriously disappears.
posted by el_lupino at 2:36 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


And err, I obviously quoted the wrong part of your post there.
posted by floam at 2:43 PM on November 25, 2009


Shades of New Grenada.
posted by dersins at 2:44 PM on November 25, 2009


why in the hell wouldn't you lay it out in a nice square grid system?

Why in the hell would you? Grids aren't natural, which is to say, they don't occur in nature and thus your body is constantly fighting to reconcile the perceived "saneness" with the fact that for some strange, inexplicable reason it feels and looks like ass because every block resembles the last.

This is precisely why cities in Europe feel more comfortable. Hundreds upon hundreds of years of slow evolution, all done before the invention of the car. You want to make a city where robots can roam briskly and efficiently from point A to point B? Build a grid. Want to build a city where living people will be happy? Use cow paths.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:47 PM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


(Whole movie starting here, btw...)
posted by dersins at 2:47 PM on November 25, 2009


California has a few interesting "cities" besides California City. My favorite non-city city is the City of Industry, California. 92% of the zoning is for industrial use, 8% is for commercial (yep, hardly any homes). There are actually more distinct businesses than there are people (the resident population is a few hundred, but the city employs more than 80,000 people across almost more than 2000 businesses). NewEgg is based in the City of Industry, as well as a number of other big companies.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is precisely why cities in Europe feel more comfortable. Hundreds upon hundreds of years of slow evolution, all done before the invention of the car. You want to make a city where robots can roam briskly and efficiently from point A to point B? Build a grid. Want to build a city where living people will be happy? Use cow paths.

I think most people agree cities platted before the car are much nicer to live in. But the kinds of cities you bring up are a lot more grid-like than they are cul-de-sac like. It doesn't mean that you need to have rigid perfectly square north-south-east-west roads. It's the lack of through traffic that defines the difference, more than squareness. And cul-de-sac development basically requires a car.

And it's not just Europe. Lots of (mostly east-coast) cities in the US that did most of their expansion before the 50s are pretty great. And the few cities on the west coast that got started early or had cleverer urban planners are pretty okay too.

These slides are kind of boring without the speaker, but the parts where they show the evolution of street layouts over the last few decades are kind of interesting.
posted by floam at 2:58 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yesterday I learned that the plural of cul-de-sac is actually culs-de-sac, not cul-de-sacs. Not to be pedantic or anything, just thought that was cool.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:14 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


During WWII large areas of Burlingame, CA consisted of vacant lots and grids of unused streets -- a great place for a kid with a bicycle -- as a result of the depression. Doubt there's a single vacant lot left, now.
posted by RichardS at 3:15 PM on November 25, 2009


I'm learning to fly airplanes. I cannot wait to get my ticket so I can go fly out to L71 and check this place out. There is a modern, living city in the area; at least, it has a Subway and a McDonalds. There's also the Silver Saddle Ranch & Club not far from the undeveloped part.
posted by Nelson at 3:29 PM on November 25, 2009


The lack of through traffic is a very important safety concern for car traffic. You really don't want there to be actual car traffic next to your house. The roads need to be designed more for cars and for higher speeds. Also, traffic noise is not nice at all, especially considering this is more of a suburban development. Now the lack of drive-through traffic does not need to and should not mean that there is a lack of bike and walkpaths. You can make all kinds of shortcuts through the area exclusively for bikes and walkers, if you plan for it.
posted by Authorized User at 3:36 PM on November 25, 2009


You can make all kinds of shortcuts through the area exclusively for bikes and walkers, if you plan for it.

And emergency vehicles. Culs-de-sac (thanks, Buddha!) are the bane of fire trucks and ambulances everywhere.
posted by kittyprecious at 3:39 PM on November 25, 2009


Just a few years ago, Eric Estrada was doing infomercials touting the wonderful new, affordable, and remarkably green real estate development of California City. It's not a completely dismal place if you have a decent job in nearby industries, enjoy the desert and/or offroad recreation. If you want perfectly gridded development and remarkably sensible naming conventions, there is nearby Palmdale and Lancaster, which have to be some of the easiest navigable streets in the west. Unfortunately, those towns have developed into huge Los Angeles exurbs during the last forty years, so some of the quiet and solitude you might enjoy in Cal City is harder to find.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:40 PM on November 25, 2009


Example from very near where I live. The area you see is an area built in the last 30 years for the most part. The thinner parts are bike/footpaths (what we call light traffic routes). This area, while close to the city centre, near a high-traffic road and between fairly high-traffic areas, is quiet and has nice connections by bike to anywhere. Also, since the light traffic routes are near housing, they feel safer for people to use since there are at least people nearby.

And emergency vehicles. Culs-de-sac (thanks, Buddha!) are the bane of fire trucks and ambulances everywhere.

Why do fire trucks and ambulances need to drive through residential areas?
posted by Authorized User at 4:01 PM on November 25, 2009


I was amused to discover the existence of Iowa City, California: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iowa_City,_California

How very... misnomertastic.
posted by LSK at 4:02 PM on November 25, 2009


I am an engineer in small city, part of my job is actually deciding policy on whether a grid or cul-de-sac system is better. and the answer is yes. Actually the best is small isolated cul de sacs used where road cant be easily connected-too steep, open space, wetlands or prior use. Grids are the best for tying a neighborhood or city together. Having a lot of viable alternative routes really eases congestion and it is much easier to repurpose a neighborhood, such as implementing mixed use. The mixed use concept can also really help congestion since a certain fraction of the population can commute by sneaker. Also mass transit really works better with a grid for all the above reasons. The last great thing is it allows for higher density (about the most economical use of land really for human development) which also helps on all the above problems. Higher densities are really nice in many ways-more space for parks, less encroachment onto agricultural or other resource lands, you don't have to have a car to get around...on and on. The Romans pretty much had it figured out 2000 years ago. Really, read City by Macauley and be amazed how little the current art of urban planning has changed.
posted by bartonlong at 4:08 PM on November 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


Ha! My family actually lived in Cal City for a few miserable years. My aunt was a real estate broker who had bought into the whole "city of the future" thing and persuaded my parents to buy a lot; I'll never forget driving to the new address at 15 thousand-something Applewood Drive, expecting to be going through miles of city but seeing nothing but desert out the car windows until we got to the block our house was on, when we found a single semicircle of built houses, of which ours was one. Around, the lone and level sands stretched far away, and the only plant life in the "yard" was tumbleweeds. Fortunately, I was already in grad school, so I just visited for holidays, but my poor mother couldn't even find a fourth for bridge; after a few years she put her foot down and the family moved to Santa Barbara (or "beautiful Santa Barbara," as Mom always called it). I'll say this for it, though, it was a great place to practice driving.

Thanks for the post, it brings back memories!
posted by languagehat at 5:26 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


a lot of sad people out there that feel that having a house out in a cul-de-sac subdivision should be their goal in life.

Yes, I'm sure you know much better than them what they should want. You should write a self-help book or something, educate them as to why they are so sad, make them feel really bad about themselves. Good stuff. I'm not sure what the culs-de-sac did to you, but perhaps you should talk to a therapist about it.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:09 PM on November 25, 2009


Seems like if a town evolved organically, it would have windy roads and cul-de-sacs and such. The first roads would follow topographic features, people would want to build their houses on the ridge line, things like that. Then the spaces between would fill up in uncoordinated patches as developers bought big spaces and put it housing without regard to what neighboring developers were doing. The only way you could get a grid is with pre-planning, or in a pretty featureless landscape. Or, I guess, if all the developers liked grids and they just happened to line up nicely.
posted by ctmf at 6:10 PM on November 25, 2009


From my conversations with fellow suburbanites over the eight years of my recent exile into said 'burbs, people like cul-de-sacs. Street grids, sidewalks, mixed use and density all symbolize cities, crime and black people to them. They want to keep their kids "safe" in a cul-de-sac that the school bus turns around in after picking up the kids at the end of their driveway. The don't want sidewalks because people could use them to talk into their neighborhood.

I happily live in the city now on a block in a square grid and quite a few of my old friends from the 'burbs are too scared to visit me.
posted by octothorpe at 6:50 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is so odd to me that anyone ever thought that area could support a large city. I've driven through between Vegas and LA many a time and I can't imagine a worse place to live. Nothing but dirt and sand for miles.
posted by something something at 6:53 PM on November 25, 2009


Street grids, sidewalks, mixed use and density all symbolize cities, crime and black people to them

Not going to argue with what you may have experienced, but there are certainly other reasons to like suburbs. The most obvious to me are crowding and noise. Especially the latter - the combination of minimal traffic with no commercial space means it's usually pretty quiet. Traffic is slow and pretty infrequent on an actual cul-de-sac road, which cuts down on noise and fumes.

(I grew up in a cul-de-sac, but live on a through street in a close suburb of SF now. Living outside the city while being close to it is the perfect choice to me --- and you don't even _have_ to drive, there's a bus stop 2 blocks from my house that takes you to BART, from which you can go to the city. But it's much quieter, I have a tiny (very small) little yard, and some space --- none of which I would have in SF. Also, it's cheaper.)
posted by wildcrdj at 7:03 PM on November 25, 2009


not sure what the culs-de-sac did to you, but perhaps you should talk to a therapist about it.

I think just they're bad for society, the economy, the environment, and people is all! It's really less about culs-de-sac than it is about suburbs in general, I think.

You really don't want to know how many brain cycles I just wasted trying to come up with a reply involving a cul-de-sac, touching, and my sack.
posted by floam at 7:09 PM on November 25, 2009


wildcrdj:

Me personally, I don't mind sounds and having less space, the chance to actually live where things are at is worth the slight downsides ten times over. If I had to take a bus and then a subway just to get where I am now when I walk outside, I'd probably simply never get out. I usually don't even need to use transit to go shopping, or to eat most of the time, let alone need to use a car.

But I see now that it was probably a bad idea to assert something that could be taken as "anybody that'd choose to live in a suburb is a sad stupid person", which could probably be read by many as something personally offensive. I really do think a lot of people have a misguided desire for this kind of thing, and "don't know what they're missing", but I certainly don't think anybody that's seriously thought about it and decided they prefer things that way is necessarily "wrong" on something that just comes down to what one desires. Sorry.
posted by floam at 7:22 PM on November 25, 2009


floam: understood, it did come off bad but I see what you mean now. People do have different tastes though, and I never got out much even when I did live in a city. But really I think the biggest problem is that people assume suburb = Tim Burton conformist nightmare, but really there are a lot of suburbs that aren't like that. As I said, mine has public transit, and is quite racially and culturally diverse. So it's definitely not the stereotype that I think city people tend to focus on.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:35 PM on November 25, 2009


(of course, the community in the article was one of those Stepford type suburbs, so I suppose that also helps color the discussion :) )
posted by wildcrdj at 7:36 PM on November 25, 2009


Grids are the best for tying a neighborhood or city together. Having a lot of viable alternative routes really eases congestion and it is much easier to repurpose a neighborhood, such as implementing mixed use.

I don't think your options are cul-du-sac or grid. Most of lower Manhattan is a perfect example of extremely high population density, extremely efficient use of space, and extremely good foot-traffic design. It's just not a grid. But if you're walking, once you get past Houston and hit grid-city you want to fucking kill yourself because you know precisely how many X and Y coordinates it's going to take to get to your destination. There are no shortcuts. No arguing over routes.

Not to mention, grids lead to fucking terrible building design. The natural aesthetic of a non-grid city is so far-and-away better—simply better—than the grid that the grid should be seen as a kind of punishment conquering nations bestow on the unfortunate losers. With grids you get blocks of blocks made up of blocks. With chaos comes interesting angles that demand creative solutions which engender actual endearment.

I would contend that the cities that are most loved by their inhabitants are not grids. It's arguable just how much "tying together" is actually accomplished just because your number of cars per minute rate is higher or lower. The payoffs for the non-grid city are far more subtle and extensive.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:45 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Land out there is VERY cheap. We're quite tempted to buy up there. It's pretty close to the Mojave Spaceport! Gotta be ready for the future!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 7:46 PM on November 25, 2009


If you wanna think about living in that area, Tehachapi shocked me with how pleasant it was. Like a hot, dried out SLO.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:20 PM on November 25, 2009


Not to mention, grids lead to fucking terrible building design. The natural aesthetic of a non-grid city is so far-and-away better—simply better—than the grid that the grid should be seen as a kind of punishment conquering nations bestow on the unfortunate losers. With grids you get blocks of blocks made up of blocks. With chaos comes interesting angles that demand creative solutions which engender actual endearment.


I would agree that the benefits that a grid provides can be provided with connectivity. Whether it is a strong grid or just lots of intersections the effect is the same. And if you have anything other than flat land you need modifications to the grid to get the most efficient design. I stand by that the worst design for long term viability and livability is isolated suburbs with one or two entrances and lots of twisty streets that look the same. This are even more depressing to me than rectilinear blocks with square, but individual buildings (homes or whatever). Phoenix is overun with these kind of "edward scissorhands' neighborhoods where all the homes are within the same narrow band of rooflines, colors and layouts and there is no obvious way out.
posted by bartonlong at 9:46 PM on November 25, 2009


The really nice thing about a grid is that it allows people who aren't intimately familiar with a city of fucking navigate it. When I'm visiting a grid-city I don't live in, I can still get from Point A to Point B even without a GPS system or detailed directions. Non-gridded streets systems, to the unfamiliar, are just a fucking labyrinth, and if you make a wrong turn just about anywhere you're instantly totally fucked; a wrong right-hand turn can't just be corrected with a couple of lefts, you have to stop and re-navigate based on your new location. I always feel a thousand times more comfortable on a grid, because there's a logic and a system I can use to get around, whereas no grid means no system, and I have to use a GPS or frequently consult google/locals to find my way across even short distances.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:03 PM on November 25, 2009


With grids you get blocks of blocks made up of blocks.

Interestingly, your brutalist tower house example from the UK is almost certainly not built on a grid and your non-grid example in New York is definitely built on a grid, even if they mixed your regular grid with some non-right angles and even the building from italy is surrounded on 3 sides by streets, hardly a feature of a cul-de-sac style.

What everyone here seems to agree on is that building areas that look the same and are monotonous are bad. I just don't see the strong effect of either grids or twisty suburban roads on how the buildings end up looking. As far as I can tell, American suburbs look monotonous and are not good for pedestrians because they are built that way, not because they are on twisty roads and cul-de-sacs. And unless you include Grid to only mean 90 degree angles everywhere, grid cities can have very interesting and even 90 degree buildings can be really nice. Different things for different people and places. A peaceful residential area should not have the same features as a vibrant town or city center.
posted by Authorized User at 12:38 AM on November 26, 2009


Me personally, I don't mind sounds and having less space, the chance to actually live where things are at is worth the slight downsides ten times over.

"People say the countryside is better, it's healthier - that things like cancer and phone tumours from mobiles are more common in the city. Well, yeah, but then so is everything else - including sex, coffee and conversation."
- Dylan Moran
posted by aihal at 5:49 AM on November 26, 2009


Civil_Disobedient, City of Industry might hold a surprise or two for you with its historic homes, cemetery and koi pond!
posted by Scram at 7:49 AM on November 26, 2009


I stand by that the worst design for long term viability and livability is isolated suburbs with one or two entrances and lots of twisty streets that look the same.

For the record, I wasn't arguing for non-grids in suburbs. Suburbs are awful things in their own right, and it doesn't matter whether it's a grid or a twisty cul-du-sac, it's still going to suck mightily. Small towns I can get behind. Rural areas I can understand. But the suburb? Anything that requires an automobile to bridge huge parts of your life (working / living) has automatically failed.

The really nice thing about a grid is that it allows people who aren't intimately familiar with a city of fucking navigate it.

Yes! This is the payout for actually living in the city versus being a visitor. I remember when I first moved to Boston, you only take the major thoroughfares like Commonwealth Ave. or Storrow Drive because they're the safe bet, the easy call. Of course, everyone else does, too. So you wind up sitting in traffic while years of your life are stripped away. But for the citizen, the one who knows the shortcuts, knows the one-way streets and back-alleys, there are options.

A non-grid city reveals itself only after careful exploration. Grids are whores.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:47 AM on November 26, 2009


This conversation is more fun if you pretend it's 1983 or something and "grid" means AIDS.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:58 AM on November 26, 2009


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