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'California City' Podcast Tells The Dark Side Of The American Dream

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One hundred miles north of Los Angeles, in the Mojave Desert, there is a sprawling, half-built town called California City. For over 60 years, real estate developers have sold a dream here: If you buy land now, you will get rich one day.

Thousands of people believed this dream, but much of the land they bought was nearly worthless.

The newest podcastfrom LAist Studios chronicles the history of California City. To learn more about the show, our newsroom's public affairs and culture show, Take Two, spoke with Senior Reporter Emily Guerin, who hosts the podcast. Her interview with host A Martinez has been edited for clarity.

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A Martinez: This podcast has been four years in the making. Emily, what's the central story to California City and how did you find it?

Emily Guerin: I actually found out about California City through one of the first stories I ever did at KPCC [which shares a newsroom with LAist]. It was about the drought. This was the summer of 2016, and we had mandatory water restrictions statewide. I started looking at how different cities were complying with these water restrictions, and there was this town in the Mojave Desert I'd never heard of that had a very sort of bold, bizarre name, California City, and they were not doing very well at saving water.

I talked to some of the city officials, and they told me, "Look, this city is basically haunted by the decision of this one man 60 years ago to build a city from scratch way out here in the desert. He built the roads, he built the water lines, he built all this infrastructure and the people never came." And now the water lines he built were rusted, they were leaking, they were having these catastrophic water failures.

But while I was there, someone mentioned to me, "Hey, you know, this developer who envisioned this place, a lot of people think he was a con artist, and that he didn't really intend to build the city at all. Oh, and by the way, I think someone very similar is selling this dream today."

AM: Why did it become so important for you to really tell the story of California city?

EG: Primarily, it was just a fascinating story. It was a city founded by this immigrant who moved West with these big dreams of kind of reinventing himself. And to do it, he did what European Americans have been doing in the U.S. for generations: He tried to convert this sort of barren land into a garden, and then market it and get rich off of it. And it just seems sort of like a timeless story, similar to the Gold Rush.

The first episode of California City tells the story of Ben Perez, a former chef at the Google headquarters in Mountain View who was invited to spend a free weekend at a resort in California City called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club in July 2017. By the end of the weekend, Ben would be convinced to spend over $31,000 on a real estate investment he barely understood.

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AM: A lot of people who invested with Silver Saddle were recent immigrants, mostly Latinos and Filipino and Chinese Americans. How far did this real estate investment go?

Ben Perez's landbanking documents.

EG: Over the past nine years, Silver Saddle has sold what they call "land banking" to about 2,000 people. Land banking is sort of like when a group of people collectively own a large chunk of empty land, and they all own little slivers of it. And the pitch was that the land might not be worth very much now, but in the future, some developer is going to come and build a wind farm or a solar field. It's going to be worth a lot of money, and you and all your co-owners will get rich.

And like you mentioned, Silver Saddle very specifically chose the groups of people whom they targeted with this sales pitch.

AM: No spoilers...but any preview possibly of what comes next in your story?

EG: The story starts in the present with Ben Perez and his experience with Silver Saddle. But then it goes back to the very beginning to understand the man who first had the vision for California City, the real estate developer, Nat Mendelsohn. He was an immigrant himself, and we sort of learn about what kind of person he was through talking to people who sold land for him, to his daughter, to men who were children at the time when California City was first being developed who remember him as a sort of benevolent grandfather of the city.

So it's about this man, Nat Mendelsohn, and whether he was a dreamer, or a con artist.

Listen and subscribe to California City here, on Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.


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