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Stucco Apocalypse: The Short Goodbye

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Ken Layne is serializing his new book thing right here on LAist. He's also the West Coast editor of Wonkette.

It’s a basic 1950s low-end ranch house of the sort you might have paid $659,000 to buy in Culver City last year — before the SoCal real-estate collapse was visible to the untrained eye. Although the people are gone and the windows are mostly broken out and boarded up, there are signs of a normal middle-class life within: a big refrigerator, the yellowed television listings from the newspaper, the skeleton of a La-z-boy recliner. Outside, the thin stucco is cracked and shedding to the point where you can see cotton-candy fiberglass insulation poking through.

This house is not a lone eyesore awaiting foreclosure or auction sale. The dumps on either side are just as rotten. The fencing between them has blown over or collapsed. Thin, sunbaked remnants of curtains flap against the glassless window frame of one house while what’s left of a screen door bangs from another ruin across the street … and the Southern California suburban street itself is reverting to desert, the pavement cracked and eroded and already outflanked by potholes that could swallow a Prius.

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It goes on like this, street after street. Once the people vanished, the scorched, arid landscape immediately began devouring what had been a human community of several thousand comfortable Californians. Sagebrush, Russian thistle and other hearty weeds loosely cover parched dirt that had recently been green lawn. Little desert rats nest in tattered mattresses, hiding from rattlers and raptors.

You need an appointment to see this modern ghost town where 4,500 people once lived, and I got one in 1990 — when the backers of a giant trash dump for Los Angeles were hauling reporters out to see the mile-and-a-half pit the town once served. The place is called Eagle Mountain, site of a monstrous Kaiser strip mine that shipped iron ore to the Kaiser mill in Fontana, making half the journey on its own 51-mile-long railroad.

The garbage-dump tour guide showed me around and gave the pitch: The environmentally friendly trash trains would haul 20,000 tons of LA garbage per day to the pit — rail transport is "greener" than a line of diesel-belching semi trucks. It would be no threat to Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park), which just happens to butt up against Eagle Mountain. The trash has to go somewhere, etc.

The abandoned town was more interesting to me than the dump scheme, which would obviously be locked up in litigation and legislation for years — as it still is, 17 years and dozens of Environmental Impact Reports later. I wanted to see the closed-up shops, the lonesome bowling alley, the empty swimming pools, the dried-up corpse of post-war American bounty, just an hour's drive from the million-dollar golf club homes of Palm Desert. The guide obliged and bounced me around the ruins in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

"The desert just eats this shit up again," I said. "It's incredible that all this happened in ten years."

"Less than that," the guide said. "The last Kaiser families left in 1985."

Take heart, friends: This is the future of Southern California and the southwest desert.

The town of Eagle Mountain dried up and died when it was no longer feasible to maintain its existence — in this case, when Kaiser shut down the mine. Everything that could be packed up and hauled away was sold off, including many of the houses. They were cut in two, loaded on trucks and reassembled by whomever bought the dismal things.

Even then, it was never completely, totally abandoned. A fire station is still manned by two firemen, and the school still serves a few dozen kids from the truck-stop & trailer-park ghetto of Desert Center down the road at the I-10 junction. When a private low-security prison opened in some of the old barracks in 1988, a hundred or so employees and managers moved into two blocks of houses most recently vacated. A few green lawns re-appeared amongst the desert scrub, until the jail closed down in 2003 and even that little two-block island of civilization was again abandoned.

And it's conceivable Eagle Mountain could once more become barely repopulated, serving a few dozen workers who oversee the eventual dumping of Los Angeles filth into the pit — although even that minor labor force would mostly consist of robots in never-ending shifts. And in an era of two-hour commutes from the "Inland Empire" to the jobs in Los Angeles, rebuilding a town for a handful of underpaid garbage handlers wouldn't be economically feasible. They can live in a trailer park in Indio with the rest of the servant-class desert dwellers.

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Eagle Mountain will never again be a thriving community of 4,500 people, of kids graduating high school and neighbors forming bowling leagues. The town was utterly artificial, an air-conditioned space colony dumped on a foreign planet for the purpose of mineral extraction, during a brief era when blue-collar workers were paid well to make stuff in the United States. Cut off the supply lines and capital to such a place, and it dies at astonishing speed — whether the death is an economic choice, as was the case in scores of California ghost towns, or the result of calamity.