Unbuilt Cities

California City

Satellite views of California City (above) and Lehigh Acres (below) from Google Maps

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.

Lehigh Acres

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.

Abandoned houses now join empty lots in Lehigh Acres. Photo by Chip Litherland for The New York Times.

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.

Twenty Mule Team Parkway was supposed to be the central boulevard of California City. Image screengrabbed from Google Street View.

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.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Tuesday December 29 2009at 04:12 am , filed under History, Maps, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Unbuilt Cities”

  • strange how where we are shapes – quite literally – our understanding of language. living in shenzhen, when i first saw the word “unbuilt” i thought in terms of “unmade” and “dismantling”, instead of “half-built” or “unable to complete”.

    i’m wondering what a sound foundation for growth is. the term “foundation” seems at once architectural and geographic, and yet – again i am trying to make sence of the world from shenzhen, where neighborhoods and buildings and whole chunks of the ocean are regularly “unmade”, i.e razed for the next generation of buildings – in shenzhen cycles of unmaking are fundamental to the economy.

    is the city’s sound foundation simply a surplus of people? or certain kinds of desires? or simply a surplus of capital and few viable investments? in shenzhen, all that is solid melts into air – and this effervescence (shall we say) is precisely what pays. is this what california city and lehigh acres lack? a critical mass of speculators beyond the first generation of investors??

  • Places like Shenzhen are, in one sense, more or less the opposite of Lehigh Acres or California City. Like New York before NIMBYism in the name of historical preservation became a hallelujah chorus (“New York will be a great place,” O. Henry wrote, “if they ever finish it”), Shenzhen is in such demand that it’s constantly forced to reconstruct itself. Rather than failing to live up to the dreams of its creators, it has surpassed them so significantly that it has no other option but to un- and remake itself.

    But all real estate development is a gamble, and it all represents, to some extent, the prediction that there will be greater value in the future than there is today. The gamblers of Shenzhen (to the extent that, in China, they are not entirely guided by the firm hand of the State, about which I’m not entirely sure) have gotten their payout, and reinvested. California City and Lehigh Acres overplayed their hand. The reason Shenzhen’s speculators “won” was that their city filled a niche – cheap shopping for Hong Kongers, cheaper labor in the proximity of Hong Kong, housing for mainland Chinese whose livelihoods depend on the SAR, but who haven’t been permitted (or can’t afford) to live in it, to name a few examples. California City and Lehigh Acres were built on a much greater leap of faith – that people would up and leave for the desert or swamp for no apparent reason.

    But there is a way to connect the kind of speculation that made the founders of Lehigh Acres and California City envision their creations, and that which results in the constant cycle of replacement in a city like Shenzhen. There’s no guarantee that Shenzhen will not get remade a little more aggressively, that it winds up surpassing the needs of anyone who would want to live or work there. After all, speculation is not just a matter of gambling on a need. The odds are stacked; developers seek to create need as well. In the unbuilt cities, this is represented by the investment in roads, parks, other attempted inducements to move to empty, purposeless places. In Shenzhen, it is the notion that demolition and replacement do not just fulfill the demand for more space, but attract it as well – presumably, the replacement is envisioned as an improvement. But if the improvement is either too weak or too extravagant, if it outstrips both the demand that exists and that it is able to induce, there is always the chance it might fail.

    In that sense, both the unbuilt cities and Shenzhen have something far more in common with each other than with Ordos. All these places are the bizarre fallout of their respective economic orthodoxies. But the unbuilt cities were founded, and Shenzhen is continually rebuilt, on the basis of hope. They demonstrate radically polar consequences of capitalism’s penchant for distorting value. Ordos is fundamentally different: the extreme manifestation of Keynesian waste, it was built for the sake of building, the architectural equivalent of a bridge to nowhere.