Western Side of the Salton Sea
February 9, 2021
Slab City, also called The Slabs, is an unincorporated, off-the-grid squatter community consisting largely of snowbirds in the Salton Trough area of the Sonoran Desert, in Imperial County, California. It took its name from concrete slabs that remained after the World War II Marine Corps Camp Dunlap training camp was torn down. Slab City is known for a lifestyle that contradicts ordinary, civilized lifestyles
Prior to the United States' official entry into World War II, the United States Marine Corps made the decision to site a training ground for field and anti-aircraft artillery units in an area accessible by aircraft taking off from carriers near San Diego. To create the training base, 631 acres were obtained. The government announced that the base was to be named after Marine Corps Brigadier General Robert Henry Dunlap. After construction of Camp Dunlap was completed, it was commissioned on October 15, 1942. The camp had fully functioning buildings, water, roads, and sewage collections. The base was used for three years during the war. By 1949, military operations at Camp Dunlap had been greatly reduced, but a skeleton crew continued on until the base was dismantled. By 1956, all buildings had been dismantled, but the slabs remained.
The area that is now Slab City was the artillery training range for the Camp. It was first settled by a few veterans who had worked at the Marine base, followed later by drifters - then recreational vehicle owners, searching for free camping spots outside Palm Springs. Current residents refer to themselves as Slabbies while tourists are called Normies.
As of October 6, 1961, a quitclaim deed conveying the land to the State of California was issued by the Department of Defense as it was determined the land was no longer required. The deed did not contain any restrictions, recapture clauses or restoration provisions. All of the former Camp Dunlap buildings had been removed. The remaining slabs were not proposed for removal. Later, legislation required that revenue generated from this property go to the California State Teachers Retirement System.
Slab City's popularity surged after an article was printed in Trailer Life and RV Magazine around 1984. A 1988 San Diego Reader reports there were no more than 600–700 RVs around 1983, and one resident estimated there were about 2000 trailers when he was interviewed in March, 1988.
Leonard Knight, an early settler who created the Salvation Mountain art installation, was featured in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, released in 2007. An obituary of Knight stated that he "spent almost 30 years building the colorful mountain ... Built out of adobe and donated paint, Knight worked on the mountain all day, every day. He even slept at the mountain's base in the back of a pick-up truck, with no electricity or running water".
An article in Smithsonian magazine in October 2018 referred to the community as a "Squatters’ Paradise" which locals consider to be "one of America's last free places". The article said of the population: "There are clearly people there who don’t want to be found, so there’s something about disappearing, and the desert offers that kind of opportunity".
Slab City is widespread, on roughly 640 acres of public land. Located near the east shore of the Salton Sea, Slab City is 100 miles northeast of San Diego and 169 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It is about 50 miles from Mexico.] To the east of Slab City is Coachella Canal, which is fenced, but gets cut open especially at Slab City, according to the Coachella Valley Water District.
The area has a large amount of sunshine year round, due to its stable descending air and high pressure. According to the Köppen climate classification system, Niland has a hot desert climate, BWh on climate maps. Niland is 130 feet below sea level.
The Washington Post reported in 2020 that population is seasonal, and balloons up to about 4,000 during the winter, by some estimates, and dwindles to about 150 in the summer. Since the 1950s, Slab City has drawn a variety of people, such as anarchists, artists, drug addicts, eccentrics, outcasts, retirees, and the impoverished. A 1990 Chicago Tribune article, by a journalist who stayed in the camp for a week, estimated that winter residents (at the time) were mostly senior citizens over 60 years old. It is a "popular winter destination for transients." Slab City is used by recreational vehicle owners, travellers, and squatters from across North America, including Canada.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune's Fred Dickey in 2012, the most common source of income among the permanent residents is "probably" SSI checks. In 2020, Ranker indicated that Slab City's income mainly comes from tourists and donations. In 1995, almost every resident of Slab City collected disability benefits, social security or unemployment. Another steady source of income at the time was selling salvaged goods to visitors. [I noted in one place that you could make donations using Venmo. 😁]
Many residents use generators or solar panels to generate electricity. Clean water is dispensed from a tank at the community church. The closest body of civilization with proper law enforcement is approximately four miles southwest of Slab City, in Niland, where residents often go for basic shopping, in 1990. Residents were still obtaining essentials from Niland, a town of about 1,000, 30 years later in 2020.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, most tourist destinations were closed. This had economic ramifications for Slab City, as well as its availability of food and water, which relied in part on tourist donations. Residents are divided on whether to follow or defy government guidelines, complicated by a lack of health infrastructure and insurance. In May 2020, Imperial County had 55 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, out of 417 tests.
Slab city has a free lending library, an outdoor music venue called The Range and The Salvation Mountain.
The settlement also has an internet cafe, a hostel, and a skatepark built inside what remains of the military base swimming pool.
In the 2020 pandemic, most tourist destinations, including the Salvation Mountain, The Range, and Slab City's Library, have been closed.
Located just east of California State Route 111, the entrance to Slab City is easily recognized by the colorful Salvation Mountain, which is a small hill approximately three stories tall and entirely covered in latex paint, concrete and adobe, and festooned with Bible verses. It was a project built over two decades by Leonard Knight. The work is a 50 ft-tall piece of religious folk art; "an unofficial centrepiece for the community and [cementing] the area’s anarchic creative identity", according to a 2020 report.
In 2002, Salvation Mountain was named a Congressional National-Art Treasure.
The current Salvation Mountain is actually the second construction to occupy the site; Knight began the first Salvation Mountain in 1984, using highly unstable construction methods that allowed the mountain to collapse in 1989. Knight was not discouraged; he rebuilt the structure using better materials and engineering, including adobe mixed with straw.
Before his death on February 10, 2014, Knight had been living in a nursing home. He was able to visit Salvation Mountain for the last time in May 2013; the visit was recorded by KPBS (TV).
East Jesus is an experimental, sustainable and habitable art installation located in the Slab City area. There is no religious connotation in the name East Jesus – it is a colloquialism for a place in the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of serviceability. The off-grid facility operates with no municipal utilities.
In early 2007, Charlie Russell left his job in the technology industry, packed all his belongings into a shipping container, and sent it to a trash-strewn field, where he began to surround his two cars with sculptures. Russell, often called Container Charlie, renamed this settlement site East Jesus. He died in May 2011. The Chasterus Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit formed after his death in 2011, has since guided the curation and expansion of East Jesus.
East Jesus features a variety of experimental art, such as live events, performance art, music, photography, and most prominently sculptures. Works are continually added, and degrade quickly in the desert climate, despite the presence of caretakers. One such volunteer referred to it, and Slab City as a whole, as a ‘salvagepunk’ ethos. East Jesus pieces are described as decaying, or growing, but always in a state of transformation, unlike traditional galleries; due both to the intense climate, and the thousands of contributing artists who have added to the installation. In 2014, live-in staff were giving dozens of free tours, and hosted visiting artists and overnight guests.
The Range is an open-air nightclub complete with stage, lights, amplifiers, and speakers, with tattered couches and old chairs for seating. Every Saturday night at around dusk, locals and visitors meet for a talent show that features permanent resident musicians and anyone else who wants to get on stage and perform. The venue is run by old-time resident William Ammon, known as "Builder Bill". Ammon's wife, Robin Ammon, collected old prom dresses for people to wear; these are used when the community puts on a prom, because many residents have never been able to actually attend one.
Dirt roads are graded by the Imperial County and it is regularly patrolled by the Imperial County Sheriff's Office, as well as Border Patrol agents searching for illegal immigrants; Slab City is about 50 miles from Mexico. Fire service for Slab City is provided by the Niland Fire Department; school buses come from nearby communities to pick up the few children there.
Slab City is divided into a handful of neighborhoods with different characteristics. As of 2020, the community is largely divided into two: East Jesus and Slab City. Thousands of campers and RV owners, many retired, use the site during the winter months. The "snowbirds" stay only for the winter before migrating north in spring, to cooler climates. Despite the high temperatures, there are about 150 permanent residents of Slab City. Some of these "Slabbers", or "Year-Rounders", derive their living from government programs and have been driven to Slab City by poverty or job loss. Others have voluntarily moved, to learn how to live off the grid, or otherwise be isolated. "Builder Bill" Ammon described "a kind of segregation" between the older residents, who would exchange goods & services, and young residents, who are sometimes "ill-equipped" for self-sufficiency, or turn to petty theft and drug use.
As of a January 2020 report, Slab City is composed of "more than a dozen individual neighborhoods ... small camps of people with their own particular rules and culture". Amenities include The Range, a makeshift library, RV rental units, an internet cafe/tent, and establishments which sell food; though most shopping is done at the town of Niland. One resident is reported to have run a weekly self-help group for women in the community. Residents talked about using CB radio as a bulletin board and adopting radio handles when they spoke to the Chicago Tribune in 1990. In 2005, a resident told Los Angeles Times correspondent for On The Streets documentary how he can just live however he wants.
In the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, residents are heavily impacted by the loss of tourist income, which also provided food and water. Social distancing is also a difficulty, as many residents work closely to trade and maintain services. The pandemic is complicated by the elderly population, no health infrastructure within Slab City (the nearest hospital is 40 minutes away, in Brawley), a lack of insurance, a lack of running water and sanitation, and anti-governmental or conspiratorial beliefs. Residents raised concerns over a past failure to contain an outbreak of canine parvo. As of April 2020, Imperial County had not provided any specific assistance for vulnerable communities.
Crystal meth is fairly common and accounts for much of the crime in Slab City. In 2015, the New York Times reported that the usual cause for police response to Slab City is over camping boundary disputes, sometimes burglary, but that methamphetamine use is a recurrent problem. In December 2019, during the two-day Imperial Valley fugitive-seeking effort, Operation Valley Grinch, four fugitives hiding in Slab City were apprehended. The locals also cut the fence to unlawfully use Coachella Canal as a swimming spot.
The land is owned by the State of California. However, it is also reported that the land was purchased by a building contractor in September 1993. As of 2020, California had not yet decided to sell the land, but the Lands Commission is considering having the land appraised, and, if needed, allow for cleanup due to military waste from the 1950s.
In 2015, several residents formed the Slab City Community Group in an effort to prevent a sale; or to obtain 450 acres of Slab City in a trust, though this was contentious with other residents. A May 2020 article confirmed that the state was hoping to sell the land. "A sale could potentially go to energy companies ... Many residents worry that a deal could leave them without a community or place to live, as the lawless Slab City has become the last resort for so many".
Here is the Smithsonian article referenced above.
Inside Slab City, a Squatters’ Paradise in Southern California
Architect and author Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie capture one of America’s last free places
"Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place" is a new book that explores a one-square-mile patch of desert in Imperial County, California, that once served as a military base. Seen here is a sentry box that once guarded Camp Dunlap’s southwest perimeter. (Donovan Wiley)
By Jennifer Nalewicki
OCTOBER 1, 2018
On a map, Slab City looks like Anytown, U.S.A. Streets intersect in a grid-like fashion and have names like Dully’s Lane, Tank Road and Fred Road. But it’s not until you have “boots on the ground” that the reality of this squatters’ paradise in the desert sinks in.
Situated on 640 acres of public land located about 50 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Imperial County, California, Slab City sits on the site of Camp Dunlap, a former U.S. Marine Corps base. During its peak in the 1940s, the camp housed a laboratory for testing how well concrete survived in the harsh climate of the Sonoran Desert, but by the end of World War II, the government shut down operations. Noticing an opportunity, squatters soon staked their claim on the area, building a hodgepodge of residences using the concrete slabs that remained coupled with whatever materials they could find.
Intrigued, author and architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie set out to delve deeper and explore what has come to be known as the country’s “last free place.” The result is their new book Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place.
An architect and a photographer explore a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, migrants, and survivalists inhabiting a former military base in the California desert.
Under the unforgiving sun of southern California's Colorado Desert lies Slab City, a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, migrants, survivalists, and homeless people. Called by some “the last free place” and by others “an enclave of anarchy,” Slab City is also the end of the road for many. Without official electricity, running water, sewers, or trash pickup, Slab City dwellers also live without law enforcement, taxation, or administration. Built on the concrete slabs of Camp Dunlap, an abandoned Marine training base, the settlement maintains its off-grid aspirations within the site's residual military perimeters and gridded street layout; off-grid is really in-grid. In this book, architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie explore the contradictions of Slab City.
In a series of insightful texts and striking color photographs, Hailey and Wylie capture the texture of life in Slab City. They show us Slab Mart, a conflation of rubbish heap and recycling center; signs that declare Welcome to Slab City, T'ai Chi on the Slabs Every morning, and Don't fuck around; RVs in conditions ranging from luxuriously roadworthy to immobile; shelters cloaked in pallets and palm fronds; and the alarmingly opaque water of the hot springs.
At Camp Dunlap in the 1940s, Marines learned how to fight a war. In Slab City, civilians resort to their own wartime survival tactics. Is the current encampment an outpost of freedom, a new “city on a hill” built by the self-chosen, an inversion of Manifest Destiny, or is it a last vestige of freedom, tended by society's dispossessed? Officially, it is a town that doesn't exist.
Charlie Hailey: I heard about Slab City about 20 years ago when I started doing research for a dissertation on the practice of camping and visited Slab City for the first time. But it was really after Donovan and I started a conversation years later about some of our common interests that we came up with the idea to revisit it.
What were your initial thoughts upon arrival and how did the residents react when you got there?
Hailey: One of the first things for me was the question of orientation. It’s interesting because there’s a strong memory of a grid, so that helps with orientation, but in many ways that grid has been—not necessarily erased—but things have been built over it or it’s overgrown. So I was constantly reorienting myself to the place.
We didn’t set out to interview the residents, we were really interested in the boundaries and structures and how and why Slab City was made. It’s not that we didn’t want to talk to them, but that wasn’t our explicit purpose. It was interesting to have informal conversations with the residents, but we were mostly ignored. Some people thought we were from the county and doing surveys, and some weren’t necessarily happy with us being there. There was a whole range of responses.
Donovan Wiley: Our motivation was to understand the structure of Slab City. We wanted to find the former perimeters of the military base, which made us sort of like archeologists and surveyors at the same time. We were interested in the constructive environment and how people were forming spaces of territory on this site. In some ways we became invisible, but we did engage with the community and had some interesting conversations.
Charlie, as an architect, what struck you the most about Slab City’s infrastructure?
Hailey: Since Slab City was previously a relatively large military installation, what really impresses me is the scale of the infrastructure. Even though it no longer functions as a base, the infrastructure of a working town is still there—or at least some of the remnants are—and yet it’s completely off the grid in almost every aspect of services, however [the layout] is a grid. Ultimately the slabs themselves are that autonomous infrastructure that gave it its name. We were fascinated with the idea of concrete on sand. Concrete is permanent in terms of architecture, and yet [the slabs] float on the sand. They really are invitations for settlement. They provide a floor and give some stability to an incredibly transient place.
What were some of the more interesting dwellings that you saw?
Wiley: [The dwellings] were all so autonomous and each had its own individuality, which in itself makes them interesting. The structures were people; they revealed the people and the place and were all very different and fascinating. [Being there] really made me question the idea of what being free is, and what it means in terms of American mythology, the desert, expansion and history.
Hailey: The scale of construction ranged from a piece of cardboard on the ground placed within a creosote bush to these large telephone structures to pallet structures that were two stories tall. Each one expressed what that particular person wanted to make them, but then against restraint of what resources were there and what nature would allow. It was windy and it was hot, and yet you’re trying to make home in a very unhomely place.
Conditions in the desert, where Slab City is located, can be harsh. Why do its occupants stick around?
Hailey: It’s a public space, and it’s been public land since the grid was laid out. The amount of control of what you can do there is limited. I think also the identity of the place is something that people find attractive. That “last free place,” we didn’t make that up, it’s a phrase that the occupants use and believe. One of the things we were interested in was how they’re testing freedom.
Wiley: The slabs invite you to make a place, and there’s an infrastructure that can invite you. Also, there’s something about not being reached. There are clearly people there who don’t want to be found, so there’s something about disappearing, and the desert offers that kind of opportunity.
After spending time there, what are your thoughts on that idea of the "last free place"?
Hailey: It’s quite complicated, at least from my perspective, because [freedom] is measured by a greater control, whether it’s the environment or other conditions that the residents are experiencing. What many of them are doing is preserving and curating the idea of freedom.
Wiley: I think that’s spot on. There’s also this idea of preservation and perception of freedom, and the people who live there are taking ownership of that. I think it’s fascinating and admirable.
Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place is published by MIT Press and will be available October 2018.