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California’s Unplanned City in the Sonoran Desert

Slab City, a do-it-yourself, free-wheeling community, has been functioning to some degree for decades. Without any infrastructure or civic institutions, such as police or fire services, it exists by defying normalcy.

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In Slab City, old travel trailers are commonly used as starting points for permanent homes in the desert outpost. (Photos: David Kidd)
David Kidd
A former Marine Corps base is now home to the self-described “last free place in America.” Built for artillery training exercises before the Second World War, the 630-acre military installation is located 100 miles northeast of San Diego, in California’s Sonoran Desert. It was decommissioned and dismantled by 1956, and the land returned to the state a few years later. The concrete slabs that had served as foundations for buildings on the base were all that remained. Squatters moved in almost immediately, and Slab City was born. The population grew over the years, reaching an estimated 15,000 in the 1980s. Lately, there are maybe 4,000 here in the winter months, the number dwindling to a couple hundred in the summer when desert temperatures can reach 120 degrees. 

For many, the attraction of Slab City is the freedom that comes from living off the grid. The downside to living off the grid means residents must be almost entirely self-reliant, doing without the civic amenities that other city citizens of the 21st century have come to expect. There is no electricity or running water. Sewers and garbage collection do not exist. The dusty dirt roads are rutted and, in places, nearly impassable. There is no police department or any kind of government entity. Here, you are pretty much on your own. Somehow, on some level, it seems to work.

Visitors to Slab City must first pass through the tiny town of Niland, near the southeast shore of the Salton Sea. The small business district has been abandoned for years and a major fire last summer forced a tenth of its residents from their homes. The total number of residents is down to around 500, half what it was a decade ago. Three miles down the road, Salvation Mountain sits off to the right. Made of concrete, adobe and donated paint, the three-story tall, brightly colored religious folk art is the product of one man’s decades-long vision and commitment. Leonard Knight built his first mountain on this spot in 1984. It collapsed five years later. Undaunted, he built again, this time using better methods and materials. After his death in 2014, a team of volunteers takes care of the constant upkeep.

Just beyond Leonard Knight’s mountain, a small, concrete sentry post welcomes visitors to Slab City. Makeshift dwellings, random found-art installations and litter dot the landscape. Homes can be simple structures made of scrap wood and tin sheets or oversized and luxurious motorhomes costing $100,000. Converted buses and aging travel trailers are a popular option, usually personalized with unusual paint schemes and ramshackle additions. Generators can be heard humming here and there. Many of the homes have solar installations. In some places there are several distinct neighborhoods within Slab City, but they are not always easy to discern in the summer when the population dwindles. One, though, is intact year-round because it is itself a permanent but ever-evolving art installation called East Jesus.

East Jesus is first and foremost an outdoor art museum. Resident artists and caretakers live along the perimeter. The works of art are mostly made of found objects and are subject to constant revision since many of the materials degrade rapidly, exposed as they are to the relentless desert sun. Each sculpture seems to have something to say about modern society, but it’s left to observers to decide for themselves just what the message might be.

Every so often, rumors spread through the desert outpost, saying that the land they live on is about to be sold out from under them. Long ago, the state decreed that any revenue generated from the property would go to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. But it will be a long time before the teachers see a penny from the property, given the projected costs associated with a necessary cleanup of the land before it could be repurposed. For the time being at least, the residents of Slab City will continue to live free.

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The nearest town to Slab City, Niland has seen its population dwindle to 500, half what it was 10 years ago.

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Salvation Mountain was created over 28 years, using hay bales, dirt and adobe, all covered in a half million gallons of donated latex paint. 

 

 

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 A sentry box marks the entrance to the former Marine Corps base, now known as Slab City.


 
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Art fashioned from found objects is everywhere in Slab City.

 
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With ingenuity and imagination, anything can be a home in Slab City, including this repurposed Greyhound Scenicruiser bus from the 1950s.

 
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Living off the grid doesn’t necessarily mean that year-round residents have to do without the typical amenities of home. 


 
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A few signs direct visitors around the otherwise unmarked complex. The library’s motto is “No due dates, no library cards.” 


 
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Flip Cassidy is one of a group of volunteer artists who contribute to, and conduct tours of, the collection of outdoor art in the East Jesus section of Slab City.


 
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Before landing in East Jesus, this plane was a fixture at an earlier Burning Man event.

 
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Flip Cassidy’s creation is a comment on TV, a “looming, pervasive force in our lives.”

 
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The “Cosmic Cadillac” is ready for takeoff.

  

 

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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