Charlie Hailey


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

Cover Interview of July 10, 2019

The wide angle

A starting premise for our work was that camps, like Slab City, accommodate conditions that might otherwise remain without space. Camps are also bellwethers—early indicators of change and registers of the challenges faced by those who camp, whether by choice or out of necessity. It is true that Slab City, as the “last free place,” is a camp of autonomy where slabbers can experiment with ways of living and building. There are very few places where you have the independence to build and tear down at will. But its residents also contend with the weight of that freedom, the transience that goes along with it, and the depth of a history that extends well beyond the slabs. Studying Slab City, we found evidence of broader narratives that have defined a country and its identities—legacies that continue to be debated. The depth of Slab City’s multivalent histories and contemporary practices reexamine frontier and land tenure, resources and resourcefulness, Manifest Destiny and “city on a hill,” and migrancy and a country’s internally displaced people.

Slab City is built on layers of past settlements. The residue of the military camp is there, and some residents curate its memory as a form of patriotism. Immediately adjacent to Slab City, an active bombing range is also a constant reminder of that recent past. Much earlier, this site hosted the camps of Cahuilla Indians who harvested clams and fish along the shore of the natural lake (sometimes connected to the Gulf of California) that later became the accidentally created Salton Sea, when human efforts to control the Colorado River catastrophically failed. On your way to Slab City, you uncannily emerge from below “sea level” (there’s a small sign along the road) to reach East Mesa, where slabbers now occupy the ancient coastline amid sand, concrete slabs, and shell middens. Soon after the military camp was decommissioned, its slabs hosted migrant farm workers harvesting creosote.

Donovan and I are both interested in the architectures of resistance and adaptation. Slab City is an effort to synthesize Donovan’s ground-breaking studies of the architecture of control with my interest in emergent built environments that must contend with transience. Questions we have asked here and in our continued collaboration are: What are the architectural consequences when freedom and control overlap? What happens when freedom from intersects with freedom of? How might public land host private aspirations? How to make home in an unhomely place? What are the material consequences when desire and need come together in a self-governed place? How do makeshift dreams ride the desert sea like concrete slabs on sand?