CALIFORNIA CITY — Reporter Emily Guerin, newly arrived in Southern California four years ago, set out to write a story about water in a small desert town.
What she found when she started learning about California City was an improbable city with a history of shady land deals.
She met people — largely immigrants or first-generation residents — who turned over thousands of dollars to people who spoke their language and knew their culture, all for a piece of land that was not worth the price.
The resulting story is told in a multi-part podcast “California City” premiering July 13, with new episodes airing weekly. The podcast, a production of LAist Studios, is available through various podcast services.
“As a reporter I always look for the gap between what should be happening and what is happening,” Guerin said. The land sales she heard about fit in that gap.
Guerin came to KPCC public radio in 2016 from the oil fields of North Dakota, where she had honed her skills as an energy and environmental reporter.
The state was in the midst of a drought and regulators tracked how much water communities used. In the listings, one city stood out for its combination of small population and outsized water use: California City.
Guerin learned Cal City’s high water use was function of its unusual design, in that infrastructure had been installed for a city much larger than had ever developed. Now the miles water lines were old and frequently breaking, resulting in water loss.
But it was that unusual city design that caught her attention, and hints that some of the prolific land sales might be less than completely ethical.
Knowing it was a more involved story, Guerin was able to tackle the tale for a podcast beginning in the spring of 2018.
The focus is on Silver Saddle, a resort on the outskirts of the city that in recent years has been at the center of land sales primarily to buyers in the Filipino, Latino and Chinese-American communities.
Along the way, Guerin learned about the city’s roots, the dream of developer Nat Mendelsohn in the late 1950s and early 1960s to build a grand city to rival Los Angeles. Even then, the real estate was sold on promises of a bright future that never seemed to come to fruition as envisioned.
Guerin and her producer James Kim spent a great deal of time in Cal City, speaking with locals and experiencing the city. She said she can see why some people find living there so attractive.
The city is something of a blank canvas to hold whatever someone imagines building there, making it somewhat easier for salespeople to paint a picture for buyers who maybe never intended to buy land in the first place.
“I think that when you go there, though, you notice that things are a little off here. There’s so many streets that are so undeveloped, streets are really wide, like abnormally wide,” she said. “There was a gap I saw in California City, like something was supposed to happen that didn’t happen.”
The podcast is her exploration of that gap.
Any good podcast should entertain and be informative, Guerin said. In this case, she hoped to shine a light on what has been going on in Cal City.
For those not personally involved in the matters explored, she hopes they find it an interesting exploration of the human condition, in which no one is all good or all bad.
“They’re not heroes or villains, they’re complicated,” she said.”I found that really interesting and I hope others do, too.”
Visit laist.com/californiacity for details on the show.