February 8, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Slab City, California


Slab City, California

Hidden in Southern California’s desert is a small squatter’s paradise affectionately known as “The Last Free Place in America”.

Slab City Split Gallery

An Off-Grid Community

This off-grid community is home to a handful of residents looking to get as far away from society as possible.

Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain in Niland, California on July 12, 2009Stephen Bures, Shutterstock

Location

Slab City is the official name of the community, but it is commonly known as “The Slabs”. It’s located in the Salton Trough area of the Sonoran Desert, in Imperial County, California.

Stage Door, music venue - 2010Rob Corder, Flickr

Population

The population ranges between 150 to 4,000 people, depending on the season, and the diverse makeup of personalities is intriguing.

A man talks to visitors on the edge of his property - 2019Logan Bush, Shutterstock

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Resident Characteristics

Not all residents of Slab City are there permanently. In fact, many of them are snowbirds, campers, and temporary squatters.

Long term residents generally include artists, eccentrics, outcasts, and anarchists.

Slab City in Niland - 2002Don Barrett, Flickr

Residents: Why They Choose Slab City

Thousands of campers and RV owners—mostly retired—use the site during the winter months.

The “Slabbers” or “Year-Rounders” make a living from government programs and have made their way to Slab City due do poverty or job loss.

Slab City in Niland - 2002Don Barrett, Flickr

History

Slab City was once the artillery training range for a military run training camp.

Back in 1942, the camp had fully functioning buildings, water, roads, and sewage. By 1949 the operations were greatly reduced, and by 1956 it was permanently shut down and the buildings were dismantled.

Steps leading up to the top of what was either a water or sewage tank - 2010Don Barrett, Flickr

History: First Residents

The first residents of Slab City were two veterans who had worked at the military base previously. They were later followed by a few drifters, and then eventually attracted campers looking for a free spot to park for the night.

Eventually, people started using the rubble to rebuild, and some chose to stay for good.

Slab City in Niland, CA - 2010Don Barrett, Flickr

Resident Nicknames

Permanent residents refer to themselves as “Slabbies”, and they refer to visitors and tourists as “Normies”.

Aerial view of Slab City - 2020Unwind, Shutterstock

Residents: Population Surge

Slab City's popularity surged after an article was printed in Trailer Life and RV Magazine around 1984.

Reports claim that there were no more than 600 people around 1983, and then by 1988 there were about 2000 trailers parked in Slab City.

Slab City in Niland, CA - 2010Don Barrett, Flickr

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Residents: Lifestyle

There are also a number of people in Slab City who have purposely chosen the off-grid lifestyle.

Many of the permanent residents specifically chose this lifestyle in an attempt to avoid societal norms and government control.

Slab City in Niland, CA - 2010Don Barrett, Flickr

Residents: Segregation

There is a bit of segregation between older residents who exchange goods and services and live a community-led off-grid lifestyle, and younger residents who seem ill-equipped for a self-sufficient lifestyle.

The younger ones generally turn to petty theft and substance use.

Kid seating on top of the old building.Maksim Romashkin, Pexels

Cost of Living

How much does it cost to rent a space in Slab City? Nothing. It is completely free to live there. There are no taxes or fees. Residents simply find an open spot of land and set up camp.

Slab City in Niland - 2010Don Barrett, Flickr

Living Expectations

Residents are responsible for their own livelihoods. They come with what they have and they sustain a living however they choose.

Leonard Knight sits next to one of his vehicles. - 2020Cavan-Images, Shutterstock

Shelters

Some residents arrive via hitchhiking and live temporarily in tents while slowly building their shelter out of unused materials and donations.

Some residents arrive in fully equipped RVs and everything they plan to need to live purposely off-grid.

Title: East Jesus is an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006.Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

Utilities

There is no electricity, plumbing, or running water in Slab City.

Residents travel for clean water, and rely on other sources of power, like generators and solar panels. Most residents make do with limited resources, and prefer the off-grid lifestyle.

Aerial view of Slab City, an unincorporated, off-the-grid squatter community - 2020Unwind, Shutterstock

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Bathing

Many people from Slab City bathe in local hot springs, but they have to be careful not to get caught for “swimming unclothed”.

There is also a “cold shower”, which is a hole in the ground that collects runoff water from the hot spring.

Slab City (The Last Free Place) - 2008Chuck Coker, Flickr

Drinking Water

Residents travel to nearby cities to get potable water. Some boil water collected from a hot spring nearby.

Some residents with trucks will do large shops and bring the necessities back to Slab City to sell to other residents who cannot travel as easily.

People boiling water outside.Clem Onojeghuo, Pexels

Growing Food

Considering Slab City is in the desert, the soil is not exactly great for gardening, and the surroundings are not equipped for farming.

Some residents may grow small amounts of crops in buckets and pots, if they access to the resources needed to sustain them.

Crops in pots.Sam Lion, Pexels

Grocery Shops

Some residents have set up a small shop within Slab City that sells basic groceries to local residents. They use a vehicle to travel to a nearby town called Niland to stock up.

Other residents travel to other towns themselves, if they have the means to do so.

Slab City, California, USA, March 2015Grossinger, Shutterstock

Community Help

A lot of the residents of Slab City today are well below the poverty line. Thankfully, Slab City is very community-based and they take care of each other.

Universal Love Bible Wagon. Salvation Mountain. March 2018.Aaron, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Free Meals

There are residents who have set up makeshift restaurants where they cook and serve free meals to other locals. There is actually a Facebook page where they announce when they have a free meal, and they walk around to share the news.

Inside Salvation Mountain Slab City - 2008slworking2, Flickr

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Other Amenities

Amenities in Slab City include The Range (entertainment), a makeshift library, RV rental units, an internet cafe, and small establishments which sell food; though most shopping is done in Niland.

One resident set up a weekly self-help group for women in the community.

The Famous Slab City, California, where an independent community - 2023Gerald Peplow, Shutterstock

The Range

The range is an open-air nightclub complete with a stage, lights, amplifiers, and speakers. There is a variety of old, battered chairs and couches for seating.

Every Saturday night, locals and visitors go there for a talent show that features some of the permanent residents of Slab City—but it is open to anyone who wants to perform.

Slab City - The Range - 2014www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos, Wikimedia Commons

The Range: Prom Night

The Range is run by a long-term, permanent resident named William Ammon, known as “Builder Bill”, and his wife, Robin.

Robin collects used prom dresses for people to wear. They are usually used when the community holds a “prom” style celebration for the many residents who have never been able to actually attend one.

The best nightclub in Slab City, The Range - 2011Maggie Houtz, Flickr

The Library

Slab City has a free lending library—known as Lizard Tree Library.

As with all buildings in Slab City, it is a makeshift structure using recycled materials. It has no door, as it never “closes”. The floor is carpet over the lumpy dirt ground.

Lizard Library, Slab City - 2011ivegotzooms ,Flickr

The Library: History

The library was started in 1999 by resident Peggy Sadlik, and it was only two small rooms. It has since been expanded and now has several walls of shelves with books of all genres collected over the years by local residents, and donated by visitors.

Slab City, California, USA, March 2015.Grossinger, Shutterstock

The Internet Café

The internet café is made up of a few old trailers and recycled materials strewn together to make up a semi-enclosed building.

It is powered with generators, and includes a wifi connection.

Slab, City, December 27, 2023: The Famous Slab City, CaliforniaGerald Peplow, Shutterstock

The Internet Café: History

It is said that it was a resident with a generator and a wifi connection who decided to share their technology.

Today, it has grown, and is funded through donations from locals, visitors, and outside supporters of the community.

Apple IIe, Commodore PET 4032, Mac Plus. - 2006Leif K-Brooks, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Skatepark

Slab City has a skatepark that was built by locals inside the remains of the old military swimming pool. Poles and jumps have been added over the years from various recycled materials.

The Famous Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea looking at a UAV Drone Aerial View of the location - 2023Gerald Peplow, Shutterstock

Community

Slab City is divided into a handful of neighborhoods with different characteristics. They’re basically small camps of people with their own particular rules and culture.

Slab City in Niland, CA - 2002Don Barrett, Flickr

Community Division

As of 2020, the community is largely divided into two sections: East Jesus and Slab City. East Jesus is essentially a wide-open art museum, and it is the highlight of the community for tourists.

Slab City is basically the rest of the community.

Slab City California - 2012tuchodi, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

East Jesus

East Jesus is located within Slab City boundaries. It is an “experimental, sustainable and habitable art installation”.

It was started in 2007, and is actually quite a tourist attraction.

Salvation Mountain, CA, USA -December 24, 2019: A welcoming signboard at the entry point of the cityCheri Alguire, Shutterstock

East Jesus: History

East Jesus was started by Charles Russell, an American man who was done chasing the “American Dream” and found himself in Slab City.

The City was overflowing in trash—so he got an idea.

East Jesus is an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

East Jesus: Creation

The trash wasn’t exactly “trash”, it was more of a scrap yard—and Russell had an artistic mind.

He started using the leftover materials to create artistic structures, and it wasn’t long until others followed suit.

The entry to the sculpture garden at East Jesus by Royce Carlson - 2013RoyceC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

East Jesus: Today

Today, the community continues to create incredible art in East Jesus, made from materials that have been reused, recycled, or repurposed.

People travel to Slab City just to see the art in East Jesus.

East Jesus Art project located in Slab City, California - 2012Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

Salvation Mountain

Another art installation within Slab City boundaries is Salvation Mountain, created by an early settler who lived there for over 30 years.

The mountain is 50 feet tall, and stands as a centerpiece to the community.

Salvation Mountain - 2008Joe Decruyenaere, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Salvation Mountain: Significance

Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain had spent almost 30 years building the colorful mountain out of recycled materials and donated paint. He worked on the mountain all day, every day.

He slept at the base of the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck, with no electricity or running water, for most of his life.

Salvation Mountain, CaliforniaCarol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

Government: Ownership

Slab City is owned by the state of California. Since all residents are “squatters”, the state can choose to do whatever they want with the land.

So far, they’ve left them alone.

Slab, City, California, From and Aerial Drone Looking at the Country Side and the Abandon Camp Dunlap Army Base.Gerald Peplow, Shutterstock

Government: Patrol

On paper, it is reported that Slab City is regularly patrolled by the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Border Patrol…but residents have reported saying “we live however we want and no one checks on us”.

It is said, however, that authorities will respond when called.

The Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Niland, CA - 2019Galenasphaug, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Crime

Most of the unlawful activity that happens in Slab City is substance related—specifically crystal. Sometimes authorities are called for property disputes or burglary.

Salvation Mountain truck - 2008Joe Decruyenaere, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Fugitive’s Hide Out

In December 2019, four fugitives hiding in Slab City were apprehended. The federal government had been searching for two days for them as part of Operation Valley Grinch.

Slab City would is often deemed a “perfect hide-out” for people needing to disappear.

A man in black shirt arrestedKindel Media, Pexels

Slab City Laws

Slab City residents claim they do follow state laws, for the most part, but that they also have their own set of unofficial laws.

For example, they do not appreciate when other locals loot from visitors. They have a sense of respect for those who visit, and temporary campers.

NILAND, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 10: Decorated car and van in the desert in Slab City on August 10, 2016 near Niland, CaliforniaNagel Photography, Shutterstock

Slab City Laws: Personal Protection

The residents also remain very protective over their belongings. They love the share, but if you don’t ask first, you’re in trouble.

It is said to be a community-wide rule that you simply don’t touch other people’s belongings.

Trailers in Slab City, CaliforniaOla Synowiec, Shutterstock

Income

The most common source of income among the permanent residents is Supplementary Security Income (SSI). In 1995, almost every resident of Slab City collected disability benefits, social security or unemployment.

In 2020, Ranker.com reported that Slab City's income mainly comes from tourists and donations.

Salvation Mountain, California - 2012Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

Income: Hustling

To supplement their security checks, many permanent residents sell savaged goods to visitors.

Tourists will purchase repurposed materials from locals as souvenirs from the “The Last Free Place in America”.

Junk at salvation mountain by Slab City in California.Barna Tanko, Shutterstock

The Pandemic: Tourism

During the 2020 pandemic, most tourist destinations were closed. This impacted Slab City as they relied on visitor donations for food and water.

The residents were divided on whether or not to follow government guidelines.

Photo of the Slab City Christian Center taken in October 2007Looper5920, Wikimedia Commons

The Pandemic: Medical Care

It was a complicated situation as most residents lacked health insurance, and the community had no medical infrastructure. Many residents were elderly, and relied on the community for survival in general.

The community also lacks running water, sewage, and garbage disposal, adding to the challenge.

Paramedic  inside the ambulanceMikhail Nilov, Pexels

The Pandemic: Confirmed Cases

Actual numbers are not available for Slab City as the residents live off-grid and do not provide this information to anyone. Very little information was reported at all during this time.

It is also said that many residents did not take part in testing. The local area, Imperial County, confirmed 55 cases out of 417 tests.

Person doing a home covid testfreepik, Freepik

The Future of Slab City

In May of 2020, rumors circulated that the state was hoping to sell the land, possibly to energy companies.

Many residents now worry that a sale of the land would leave them without a place to live. Slab City has become a last resort for so many.

Slab, City, December 27, 2023Gerald Peplow, Shutterstock