What started out as marching orders to cover California’s drought four years ago turned into a much different story for KPCC senior environmental reporter Emily Guerin as she took on an assignment delving into land issues in California City as well into its history.
The story evolved over four years and will be the feature of a multipart podcast that airs July 13 at LAist.com.
At the beginning of her assignment in 2016, Guerin, fresh from North Dakota’s oil fields, began investigating water agencies that the California Department of Water Resources noted as being the highest water users. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown had launched a number of water reduction measures as part of the years-long drought the state had endured.
“I was looking at this list and California City was at the top of it,” Guerin said. She followed up by contacting Cal City’s public works director and city manager at the time and was provided a rundown on the city’s history.
What she discovered initially was that California City was planned to be a metropolis similar to Las Angeles or Las Vegas. As such, infrastructure was installed for of that size long before brick and mortar buildings sprang up, including the water line system.
As such, due to California City’s aging water infrastructure, it suffers from multiple leaks and broken lines, which planted it squarely on DWR’s list.
Guerin realized that California City’s was more complex, she began tackling a more in-depth assignment in April 2018.
While looking into the town’s history, she said she spoke with an unofficial town historian and retired police chief who spoke about what becomes the podcast’s focus: the Silver Saddle Ranch and Club controversy, which was the center of a series of land sales aimed at mostly immigrants.
Silver Saddle now sits closed and remains in state receivership following a lawsuit slapped on it by the California Department of Business Oversight.
Along the way she spoke with several people, many of them immigrants, who had invested upwards of tens of thousands of dollars in land sales deals only to come away with empty wallets and shattered dreams.
“I went looking into Silver Saddle and spoke with a number of people who invested with Silver Saddle, all of whom had very similar stories of what had happened to them there,” Guerin said, including how those people had felt they had been pressured into buying investment products they barely understood.
Guerin’s podcast also dives into the history of city founding father Nat Mendelsohn and his dream in the 1950s and 1960s to build a city to rival Los Angeles. Mendelsohn’s efforts to build the city rested on selling the grand dream and land to go with it, something comparable to the Silver Saddle scenario of a few years ago.
Guerin said she spoke with several people regarding Mendelsohn, including those who worked with or knew him best. In her podcast, she noted that there are more than just one way to see Mendelsohn.
“I tried as best I could to get at what his intentions were,” Guerin said, noting it’s kind of hard to do when the developer is already dead.
Guerin and producer James Kim visited California City a lot over the course of their podcast. While there, they rented a place, spoke with residents, city officials and experienced the town.
“It ranged from being very open and cooperative to feeling like they were withholding,” she said of interviewing people for her podcast. She noted that’s similar to other small towns that she’s covered.
Guerin said her goal for those who listen to the podcast will learn more about California City and the gap that exists between how it was supposed to be developed and how it morphed into today.
“A lot of people have sort of an idea about California City because either their grandparents bought land there or took them out there to visit when they were a kid,” Guerin said. “A lot of people have heard of it and have a vague idea that it had a unique and colorful history.”
For those who have heard about California City, “it’s a chance to learn more about the city came to be and the legacy of selling this vision continues to this day.”
For those who invested in Silver Saddle’s land sales, she said it would help show they aren’t alone in their plight and can inform themselves about the Department of Business Oversight case.
And for Cal City residents and the surrounding area, Guerin said they could learn an interesting facet of the city’s history, while stressing her story is narrowly focused on land sales and investment.
“There are a lot of different ways you can tell the history of California City,” she said.
She said a take-away from her time spent on the story was the frustration some residents expressed when outsiders saw Cal City as nothing more than a “sales pitch” town.
“That’s not accurate and I agree with them,” Guerin said. “I try really hard not to have that come across. It is not a sales pitch, it is a real town with a lot of people who live there with services. For a lot of people, it’s a lovely place to live and I understand a lot of the reasons people want to live there.”