Slab City, California

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For the unincorporated community in Wisconsin, see Slab City, Wisconsin.
Slab City
Slab City Welcome.jpg
Slab City
Location Sonoran Desert, California (4 miles northeast of Niland, California)
Coordinates 33°15′32″N 115°27′59″W / 33.25889°N 115.46639°W / 33.25889; -115.46639Coordinates: 33°15′32″N 115°27′59″W / 33.25889°N 115.46639°W / 33.25889; -115.46639

Slab City or The Slabs is largely a snowbird community in the Sonoran Desert, located in Imperial County, California, 156 miles northeast of San Diego, in the California Badlands, and used by recreational vehicle owners and squatters from across North America.[1][2] It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from the abandoned World War II Marine Corps barracks of Camp Dunlap.

Several thousand campers, many of them retired, use the site during the winter months. The "snowbirds" stay only for the winter, before migrating north in the spring to cooler climates. The temperatures during the summer are unforgiving (as high as 120 °F) (48 °C); nonetheless, there is a group of around 150 permanent residents who live in the Slabs all year round. Some of these "Slabbers" derive their living from government programs and have been driven to the Slabs by poverty. Others have moved to The Slabs to learn how to live off the grid and to be left alone. Still others have moved there to stretch their retirement income.

The site is both decommissioned and uncontrolled, and there is no charge for parking. The site has no official electricity, running water, sewers, toilets, nor trash pickup service. Many residents use generators or solar panels to generate electricity. Supplies can be purchased in nearby Niland, California, located about four miles (6 km) to the southwest of Slab City.[citation needed]


Photo of the Slab City Christian Center taken in October 2007.

1942: Construction of Camp Dunlap[edit]

Camp Dunlap, in which The Slabs now sit,[3] was expected to prepare the United States Marine Corps for combat duty.

1949: Military operations reduced[edit]

Military operations at Camp Dunlap had been greatly reduced, and a skeleton crew continued until the base was dismantled.

1956: Camp Dunlap dismantled[edit]

All buildings were ordered to be dismantled; the slabs remained.

1961: Land conveyed to the State of California[edit]

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, a recapture clause, or any 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.

Creosote harvesting[edit]

At some point, a chemical company in Oakland, California hired 20 men to harvest creosote leaves near Niland. Some of the workers moved closer to their work by living in small trailers at the abandoned Camp Dunlap. This was the start of what is now called Slab City.

1965 migration to Slab City begins[edit]

Riverside County ordered people to leave a camping area at Painted Canyon near Mecca, California. These people had all sorts of living arrangements: besides the trailers, there were cardboard and plywood shacks and a variety of vehicles and school buses. Some migrated to what is now Bombay Beach, Georgetown, south of the Fountain of Youth and the abandoned Marine Training Base Camp Dunlap, now known as Slab City.


Salvation Mountain[edit]

Main article: Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Located just east of California State Route 111, the entrance to Slab City is easily recognized by the colorful Salvation Mountain, a small hill approximately three stories high which is entirely covered in acrylic paint, concrete, and adobe, and festooned with Bible verses. It is a project of over two decades by Leonard Knight.[4]

East Jesus[edit]

Bottle wall at East Jesus

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 service availability; the off-grid facility operates with no municipal utilities.[5] In early 2007, Charlie Russell left his job in the technology industry, packed all his belongings into a shipping container, and had it sent to a trash-strewn field where he began to surround his two art cars with the sculptures that would become the foundation works of East Jesus. The Chasterus Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit, was formed after his death in 2011 and has since guided the curation and expansion of East Jesus.

East Jesus sculpture garden entry

Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled, or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste, in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression. Assemblage and mixed-media art covers nearly every inch of the interior and exterior. Sculptures and installations are constantly in development throughout the campus, and the musical performance space holds a PA system, a stage lighting system, and a studio grand piano.[6] There are also a solar power system, a full kitchen, and a battery bank made up of expired batteries disposed of by telecom companies.[7] Photography, multi-media art, performance art, writing, and music are integral parts of the larger fabric which the collective artists are continually weaving. East Jesus is a living, growing, and ever-changing artwork that embraces the varied voices of the thousands of contributing artists who have added to the installation. Every day, residential staff give dozens of free tours, and host visiting artists and overnight guests.[8]

The Range[edit]

The Range is an open-air nightclub complete with stage, lights, amplifiers, speakers, and tattered couches and old chairs for seating. Every Saturday night at about dusk, the locals and visitors meet for a talent show that features permanent resident musicians, and anyone else who wants to get up on stage and perform. The venue is run by an old time resident of 14 years named Builder Bill.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]


  • Slab City was one of the settings featured in the Sean Penn film Into The Wild (2007), based on Jon Krakauer's eponymous 1996 book that recounts Christopher McCandless' adventure across North America, culminating in his death in the Alaskan wilderness. In the book and movie, McCandless spends time with itinerant residents of Slab City, named Jan and Rainey, and strikes up a relationship with a teenage girl named Tracy.
  • Below Sea Level (2008), a multiple award-winning documentary by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, was filmed in Slab City. The film, shot over a five-year period, documents the lives of a small group of otherwise homeless residents, living in RVs, buses, tents, etc.[9]
  • It is visited in the BBC made-for-TV documentary film American Nomads (November 28, 2011).[10]
  • Vice created a YouTube video featuring Slab City, called Living Without Laws: Slab City, USA (May 15, 2012). The synopsis reads: "This bizarre, lawless land in the California desert is inhabited by drug addicts, eccentrics, army vets, hippies and just plain old weirdos. Slab City is referred to by its residents as 'the last free place in America.'" )[11]


  • A parody of the city, called Stab City, is featured in the video game, Grand Theft Auto V (2013). It is portrayed as a run-down trailer park filled with a gang of bikers.



  • Slab City was featured in the NPR documentary program Hearing Voices episode "Small Town", the week of November 11, 2009. The segment's synopsis reads: "This town in California never did exist, though it's full of folk who live there: an unofficial RV Park and home to the homeless thrives in culture and community."[12]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Perry, Tony (December 18, 2011). "Slab City, a trailer park utopia, thrives in remote desert". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2015-03-25. 
  2. ^ Motlagh, Jason (February 3, 2012). "Slab City, Here We Come: Living Life Off the Grid in California's Badlands". Time. Retrieved 2015-04-20. 
  3. ^ punctuation
  4. ^ Leonard Knight passed away February 10, 2014 in El Cajon, California following a long illness.
  5. ^ Yuki Toy. "ロサンゼルスから東へ320km 砂漠の共同生活地区「イーストジーザス」に住む漂流者たちの生活に潜入レポート – 自由って何?". ロサンゼルス発 ジャパラマガジン®. 
  6. ^ Johnson, Robert (November 21, 2014). "13 Rules For Surviving The East Jesus Artist Community". Pixable. Retrieved 2015-04-20. 
  7. ^ "6 Reasons You're Picturing the Post-Apocalypse Wrong". Retrieved 2015-11-11. 
  8. ^ Bastow, Clem (September 25, 2014). "Here's What It's Like To Live In A Sustainable Art Installation That's Being Slowly Swallowed By The Desert". Junkee. Retrieved 2015-04-20. 
  9. ^ Gianfranco Rosi (director) (2008). Below Sea Level. Slab City, California. 
  10. ^ American Nomads. BBC. November 28, 2011. 
  11. ^ Quintero, Ernie. Living Without Laws: Slab City, USA. Vice magazine. 
  12. ^ "HV076- Small Town : HearVox". Retrieved 2010-11-19. 
  13. ^ "The Last Free City In America". Good Mythical Morning. YouTube. September 1, 2015. 

External links[edit]