Charlie Hailey


On his book Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place

Cover Interview of July 10, 2019

In a nutshell

Slab City is known as the “last free place.” This remote settlement in the southern California desert occupies a decommissioned World War II military camp. Only its slabs and tank-rutted roads remain. Slab City also occupies the legacies of Jeffersonian land policy. Its one-square mile area is one of the last remaining Section 36 plots dedicated exclusively for public use in the National Land Ordinance system. A collaboration between an architect and a photographer, this book sets out to understand the idea of freedom that has been built on those eponymous slabs by a community of anarchists, artists, retirees, snowbirds, squatters, survivalists, and veterans.

Seven decades in the making, Slab City is one of the most enduring temporary settlements in the United States. It endures despite hardship. All of the elements of a city’s infrastructure are here, but the roads are crumbling, the sewers have been capped, the million-gallon water tanks are empty, and the high-tension lines of the nearby power grid pass high overhead. The canals that flank two sides of Slab City like defensive moats rush toward the Imperial Valley’s fields of iceberg lettuce and northward to the lawns of Palm Springs. Like the soldiers bivouacked at Camp Dunlap in the 1940s, Slab City’s inhabitants—known as “slabbers”—are also effectively training to live in the desert, where the rights of public land meet the difficulties of off-grid living.

In Slab City, a resident’s tenure of a site requires physical occupation. And when you can’t be physically present, the structures you have made stand in for your absence. In our field work, Donovan and I set out to understand this place through the things its residents have made. Our collaboration took on Benjamin Buchloh’s charge to discover how creative practice (in our case, writing and photographing) can study marginal places. We hoped to understand new territories caught between complex pasts and indeterminate futures that mix autonomy, necessity, and control. Our method was to read and interrogate the built environment: its shelters, boundaries, markers, art installations, vehicles, cemeteries. In the process, constructions became characters; structures took on personas.

Between its introduction and conclusion, the form of the book has five acts—camp, perimeter, ration, facilities, and drawdown. Each act gathers the scenes and elements that make up this place and tells its story. “Ration,” for example, unpacks the necessary provisions of off-the-grid life in the desert—from tin cans to shade cloth, from cardboard to Slab Mart. “Facilities” narrates Slab City’s ad hoc infrastructures (including a hot springs bath, an improvised public shower, an empty Olympic-sized pool, a pet cemetery, and a library), as well as individual building projects of its residents (including a cave shelter carved into the berm of a canal and a hut made of pallets and palm fronds). Reading Slab City from start to finish follows the rising and falling actions of life on the slabs, but it can also be read more instinctively.

Each scene is short, and readers might choose to flip through the book, stopping at particular photographs or stories, in much the same way that Donovan and I explored the place. Each day, we set out with a particular theme in mind, whether it was boundary or grid or horizon, but our walks through the slabs always yielded other discoveries and insights that we had not expected. One morning, we were walking near the perimeter of the original military camp, and the low sun cast a series of long shadows that formed a nearly perfect line. We had discovered the remains of the camp’s southern perimeter fence. Its posts had long ago been salvaged (someone cut them off a few inches from the ground) to become building materials in Slab City.