Last Updated on June 10, 2023
Slab City, the “invisible” city of California, is one of the most absurd, enigmatic and unique places in the United States of America.
This settlement in the Californian desert is not recognized as an official town, it is nevertheless a real inhabited community of artists and outcasts, albeit lacking electricity, running water or other urban infrastructure.
The nearest town is that of Niland while, about ten miles away, you can visit the shores of Salton Lake, California’s largest lake, famous, unfortunately, for being so toxic that its shoreline is an eerie graveyard of fish bones. Welcome to Slab City.
What is Slab City
Slab City, or The Slabs, is an alternative and open community of artists, retirees, poor people and outcasts, many of whom move to the warmth of the desert during the winter months.
Its inhabitants are anarchists, hustlers and outlaws, seeking refuge away from society in what is known as “the last free place in America”, a lawless town in the California desert.
The history of Slab City begins in the 1940s, with the founding of Camp Dunlap, the U.S. military base active during World War II, later dismantled in 1956. Slab City was named after the remaining concrete foundations scattered around its land, leftovers of Camp Dunlap.
Then, in the 1980s, the town reached the height of its notoriety, becoming a favorite destination for retirees and people who wished to live outside the big metropolises: “the slabs” attract people on the run from society, outcasts, the poor and outlaws.
The name “Slab City” refers to the abandoned concrete slabs that are scatter throughout the land. The military constructed the slabs in 1942 for the Marine Corps during World War II in what used to be Camp Dunlap.
Slab City is now populated by about 200 people living squatters in old abandoned structures or wooden shacks, including nomads and refugees fleeing modern society.
Squatters move to Slab City for a variety of reasons; some do so to live off the grid and outside the restrictions of “normal” society, while others are drawn there by poverty.
In the summer, the city’s streets come back to life thanks to the presence of hippies and nomads who come here, for short periods, considering the city and its lively structures a kind of place of worship.
Despite its reputation of being “lawless”, local police offers do regurarly patrol Slab City. Still, there are few places in the world that can match the anarchist vibe and sense of libertarianism of the slabs.
The crime rate in Slab City is also considered to be quite high, with the highest arson rate in the country, and many cases of reported thievery and assault. In 2021, the city also became infamous for the unresolved murder of 21-year old Poe Delwyn Black.
One of the main attractions of Slab City is an artwork by resident Leonard Knight (1931-2014), titled “Salvation Mountain”. Over the course of 30 years he lived in Slab City, Knight created a small artificial hill using bricks, car parts and tires, featuring countless murals and inscriptions citing the Bible.
Initially the piece, which required over 10,000 gallons of paint, was called “Technicolor Mountain”, “Mountain of Love”, and a number of other names, before people ultimately decided to refer to it as “Salvation Mountain”.
Knight lived next to his work in Slab City up until his final years, when he had to be transferred to a care facility in El Cajon at the age of 80. He was able to visit his artwork one last time in 2013 before his demise.
After his death, a small team of volunteers took over the maintenance of Salvation Mountain, which is considered the unofficial centrepiece of the community of Slab City.
Salvation Mountain is not the only display of Slab City’s artistic value. The site is home to East Jesus, an eco-themed art project and artist community centered around a garden showcasing pieces made from recycled and wasted material, a sort of open-air “museum of junk”.
The name “East Jesus” refers to a place that is far away, in the middle of nowhere – and very appropriate in this case, but it holds no religious connotation.
East Jesus is home to a variety of experimental and sustainable art installations, predominantly sculptures but also hosting live events, performance art, music and photography.
Installations are replaced regurarly as they tend to deteriorate quickly due to exposure of heat, sunlight and wind in the desert environment, but there’s always something new being added.
The last free place in America
Slab City may be known as the “last free place in America,” but as the community continues to grow and evolve, it is facing new challenges and struggles. The lack of basic amenities and infrastructure, combined with a population boom in the winter months, has led to issues such as theft, drug abuse, and a buildup of trash.
Despite these challenges, the residents of Slab City remain committed to maintaining their unique way of life and preserving the community’s spirit of freedom and individuality.
One of the main draws of Slab City is its vibrant and eclectic arts scene, with many of its residents creating their own unique pieces. From sculptures made from found materials to graffiti on abandoned buildings, the town is a canvas for self-expression.
Many residents also find solace in the natural beauty of the surrounding desert landscape. The nearby Salton Sea offers a unique and eerie setting, while the wide open spaces and clear night skies provide endless opportunities for stargazing and introspection.
While Slab City may not be for everyone, it is a place that continues to attract a diverse and fascinating group of people who are drawn to its freedom and sense of community. Whether you’re looking for a temporary escape from society or a permanent alternative way of living, the Slabs offers a unique and unforgettable experience.
Visiting the Slabs
Getting to Slab City can be a bit of a challenge, as it is located in a remote corner of the Sonoran desert. The best way to get there is by taking Beal Road from Niland, which is paved for most of the way. Once there, the best way to get around is by bicycle, as the streets are dirt and driving can be treacherous.
Visitors to Slab City should also be prepared for the harsh desert climate, with temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. There is no potable water available in the Slabs, so it is essential to bring in enough water for your stay.
In terms of accommodations, Slab City offers a variety of options, from camping in the desert to renting a room on Airbnb. There are also several RV parks located nearby, such as Sea and Sand RV Park, which is located just 8 miles away, and offers amenities such as full hookups and a laundromat.
Despite its challenges, Slab City remains a unique and alluring destination for those looking for an off-the-grid experience. Whether you’re an artist, an adventurer, or just someone looking for a taste of freedom, the Slabs offers something for everyone.
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