The world is filled with mad dreams only partly come to life. In Eastern Europe, half-built skyscrapers that neither communist governments nor their free market-friendly successors could complete form ironic landmarks, totems of ideological overconfidence. In China’s Inner Mongolia province, authorities built a whole city to boost the country’s GDP — that no one could afford to live in. And vast, empty grids etch the surface of the United States: the hidden ruins of capitalism’s most spectacular failures.
Fly out of Fort Myers at dusk, catching the glint of the setting sun on the vast grid of streets stretching across the marshlands to its east and you may come to understand the level of ambition that led the airport you just left to be grandly styled “Southwest Florida International”. This is Lehigh Acres, quickly becoming America’s most notorious — if not its first — suburban ghost town.
Appropriately enough, Lehigh’s development began when Chicago businessman Lee Ratner was desperate for a tax shelter. He parked his assets in Florida, investing in a ranch. But with little experience ranching, he turned to some Chicago friends who divided the vast acreage — totaling over 250 square kilometers — into lots, plotting them along eleven thousand miles of new road. This was in the 1950s. Fast forward forty years, and 90% of the planned development remained vacant. Its roads falling apart, Lehigh was declared blighted by county officials in 1992.
The vicissitudes of real estate appeared to be in the process of saving Lehigh Acres in the first years of the new century. Easy credit poured into the development, filling in parts of the grid. But the subprime loan crisis put a rapid halt to its expansion, and Lehigh quickly developed a reputation as the foreclosure capital of the country as property values plummeted 50% from 2007 to 2009. Both the New York Times and the New Yorker rushed to cover the onslaught of poverty, abandonment, crime, and even hunger that began to beset the beleaguered community, which became such a poster child for the economic crisis that a photo-op was arranged there for President Obama.
Obama’s prospective appearance brought to mind another presidential visit to a distressed and practically deserted neighborhood. In 1977, Jimmy Carter famously visited the Bronx’s burnt-out Charlotte Street. That neighborhood was later “rescued” by the surreal transplantation of single-family suburban ranch houses to an area that had been dominated by multistory apartment buildings — an operation that later received the endorsement of another presidential visitor, Bill Clinton. The implication was that the “successful” model of traditional suburban development could stabilize the otherwise unsalvageable and obsolescent inner city.
Thirty years later, Obama’s visit appeared to be sending the opposite message: the age of sprawl was over, and the social bankruptcy of Lehigh was proof. The paradigm had been set throughout the decade, as the attention of urban planners shifted from reviving urban cores to abandoned strip malls and hollowing inner suburbs. While economic and environmental disasters might still blight city neighborhoods from Detroit to New Orleans, the operative question for urban planners has become what to do with failing suburbs.
But Lehigh Acres’ rise and fall masked the fact that it had remained barren for four decades; the phenomenon of the failed suburb was hardly new. In the southwest, where Sunbelt optimism forged a heady brew with the legacy of prospectors’ readiness for risk, the ghostly remains of one of the U.S.’ most spectacularly unbuilt cities cover a fair portion of the Mojave Desert. Long a romantic refuge of relentless idealists and rugged individualists alike, the Mojave — despite its soaring heat and scorching aridity — was probably as perfect a place for the madness of California City as south Florida’s swamps were for Lehigh.
It seems possible that developer Neal Mendelsohn, who was also a sociologist, must have been testing the gullibility of investors when, in 1958, he declared that his creation would some day rival Los Angeles in size. (In 2003, San Francisco art magazine Cabinet “created” a similar development, Cabinetlandia, as a parody of property ownership, buying up a vast swathe of New Mexico desert on eBay and selling lots to readers at pennies apiece.) But Modernist architect Konrad Wachsmann, at least, took Meldelsohn seriously, proposing a civic center for California City so massive that it would have required high-tension cables to support its roof.
At fits and starts, California City — about 100 miles northeast of its would-be rival, LA — has had some success. Around 9,000 people now call the city, geographically the largest in the state, their home, clustering near the massive Central Park around which Mendelsohn planned his metropolis. Many of them are employed by a private prison — probably not the driving force that Medelsohn envisioned for his new city’s economy — if, that is, he ever planned for one at all. Commenting on a post about the city on the excellent BLDGBLOG, residents testify that, though California City is now one of the fastest growing municipalities in the state, its land hawked by minor celebrities on late-night infomercials, most amenities are only available far down the road.
But to get there, residents of California City must drive through miles of undeveloped blocks and cul-du-sacs that were laid out across the desert over half a century ago — in preparation for the city’s anticipated growth. In fact, the streets forming both the mostly empty grid of Lehigh Acres and the almost totally barren one of California City all have (mostly uncreative) names — they can even be explored on Google Street View. But today, the only traffic these streets see are road rallies that appear like Mad Max reenactments when set against the empty desert landscape, and the names are only useful for skydivers, who try to land on specific cul-du-sacs on their way down to the desert floor.
It’s possible that these landscapes might still, one day, fill out. The Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan, which gridded the island for miles above the limit of New York’s current development, must have seemed mad when it was adopted in 1811. In less than a century, however, it had filled out, and urban development had spilled well into the outer boroughs of the city. Likewise, only a portion of Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott’s street plan for Washington, DC — a city, like Lehigh Acres, situated in an unattractive marsh — was occupied out before the 20th century, but the city’s sprawl now stretches for many miles around.
The difference between cities like New York and those like California City or Lehigh Acres is a sound foundation for growth. Neither suburban fantasy had a raison d’être beyond riding the real estate bubble. As growth slows in the Sunbelt, more unbuilt cities may emerge — like the planned expansion of Rio Vista, an even more recently and picturesquely deserted town in northern California. More like towers of cards than Ozymandian excesses, they fell before they could rise, the abortions of poorly-laid plans.
Tags: Abandonment, Recession, Suburbia, Views from Above