Dispatches from the Last Free Place
- Winner of the 2018 Southern California Book Festival in the General Non-fiction category.
- Winner of the 2019 AUPresses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show in the Trade Illustrated category.
192 pp., 7 x 9 in, 41 color illus.
- Published: October 16, 2018
An architect and a photographer explore a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, migrants, and survivalists inhabiting a former military base in the California desert.
Under the unforgiving sun of southern California's Colorado Desert lies Slab City, a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, migrants, survivalists, and homeless people. Called by some “the last free place” and by others “an enclave of anarchy,” Slab City is also the end of the road for many. Without official electricity, running water, sewers, or trash pickup, Slab City dwellers also live without law enforcement, taxation, or administration. Built on the concrete slabs of Camp Dunlap, an abandoned Marine training base, the settlement maintains its off-grid aspirations within the site's residual military perimeters and gridded street layout; off-grid is really in-grid. In this book, architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie explore the contradictions of Slab City.
In a series of insightful texts and striking color photographs, Hailey and Wylie capture the texture of life in Slab City. They show us Slab Mart, a conflation of rubbish heap and recycling center; signs that declare Welcome to Slab City, T'ai Chi on the Slabs Every morning, and Don't fuck around; RVs in conditions ranging from luxuriously roadworthy to immobile; shelters cloaked in pallets and palm fronds; and the alarmingly opaque water of the hot springs.
At Camp Dunlap in the 1940s, Marines learned how to fight a war. In Slab City, civilians resort to their own wartime survival tactics. Is the current encampment an outpost of freedom, a new “city on a hill” built by the self-chosen, an inversion of Manifest Destiny, or is it a last vestige of freedom, tended by society's dispossessed? Officially, it is a town that doesn't exist.
Research for this project was supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Welcome to Slab City. Once again, as an observer, as an investigator, as a seeker and a seer, Charlie Hailey discovers genuine drama and soaring poetry in the most outlying realms of architecture. I consider him a master stylist who redefines brilliance.
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award winner, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
With this new book, Charlie Hailey extends his long, provocative detour from the main roads of geographic inquiry to explore the empty foundations and dirt streets of Slab City, a landscape suggesting one possible endgame for American civilization. Hailey's narrative archaeology of the edge of the world—a place of architectural remnants, DIY religious pilgrimage, and off-grid family values—reveals the persistent struggle to find and occupy space in polities overlooked by more powerful routes of national identity. Hailey could be describing his own book when he writes that, in Slab City, “You have a sense that everything is here.”
Geoff Manaugh, author, BLDGBLOG and A Burglar's Guide to the City