By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Slab City, the so-called last free place in America, is being forced to grow up, and some of its residents are fearful, others furious and even more simply want to be left alone.
The makeshift community is just east of Niland, up the road from Salvation Mountain, and it doesn’t have any creature comforts; there is no running water, no toilets and no sanitation service. Shade from the brutal summer sun is whatever residents scavenge, cobble together or drive into the area.
At one time, the site was a Marine base called Camp Dunlap, since decommissioned and dismantled by the federal government in the 1950s. That’s when the squatters began to move in.
The state owns the land, and any revenues derived from it are earmarked for the California State Teachers Retirement System.
Slab City nowadays is home to some 200 permanent residents and between 1,000 and 2,000 retirees seeking refuge from their native cold winter climes.
Some of its residents are homeless. Some are pursuing their vision of Utopia, having been stung by society’s rules and regulations. And some just want to be left alone. For many, those 640 acres that make up the Slabs are a slice of paradise.
Although it has been like this for decades, the place has found itself the focus of an increasing level of attention in recent years, gaining significant exposure from Sean Penn’s 2007 film “Into the Wild,” and having been the source of countless documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles.
And now, the possibility that the state might sell Slab City has some residents spooked. But the name on a purchase application turned into the California State Lands Commission isn’t a developer who might evict them in the name of progress. It’s one of their own.
Slab City Community Group Inc.
Lynn Bright is a cheerful, articulate and engaging woman with an easy laugh who describes herself as chubby. She is involved in a number of organizations at Slab City and Salvation Mountain, and weighs in on public issues in nearby Niland.
She is a retired lawyer from Canada who arrived at the Slabs in 2009. She returned to Canada in spring 2010, returned to Slab City later that year and claims she has been living there ever since. She is the focus of much of the Slab residents’ anger today.
Sensing a threat to Slab City’s laissez-faire lifestyle, Bright submitted a purchase application with the State Lands Commission on behalf of a charity that claims to represent Slab City.
According to Bright, an official with the State Lands Commission called one of her fellow Salvation Mountain Inc. board members last August to ask if the group would consider purchasing the land around Salvation Mountain and the 640 acres that make up Slab City.
Salvation Mountain Inc. aims to promote, preserve and perpetuate Salvation Mountain, a massive folk-art installation that gets thousands of visitors every year and serves as the unofficial gateway to Slab City.
Dan Westfall, president of Salvation Mountain Inc., indicated his group does not wish to be the landlord of Slab City and filed a purchase application just for the land that Salvation Mountain sits on.
The ability to buy just a portion of zone 11, section 36, the parcel that encompasses most of Slab City and Salvation Mountain, alarmed Bright.
Around the same time, William Ammon, another longtime Slabs resident, became worried that outsiders might wish to purchase and develop the Slabs, and suggested buying the land through a charity.
Ammon is commonly known as “Builder” Bill, organizer of a weekly live music showcase at his slab dubbed “The Range.”
Bright, Ammon and several other Slab City residents formed Slab City Community Group Inc., and Bright submitted an application to purchase the land on behalf of the group.
“In my point of view, it was do this or lose this land to some big corporate entity, some developer who wants to chop Slab City up,” she said.
Bright said she believes Salvation Mountain Inc.’s application for just a portion of the land that the mountain and the Slabs sit on opens the door for other groups to do the same.
“If they do that once, why wouldn’t they do it again?” she asked.
Bright emphasized that she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Slab City Community Group.
Jenn Nelson, Slab City Community Group board member, speaking on behalf of the board, corroborated Bright’s statements.
“A few people started showing interest in secretly purchasing Slab City for private use and development,” she said.
“Lynn Bright secretly filed an application for the rest of the Slabs to be purchased for the charity, to make sure that in the event that somebody else puts in a bid for the land, hers is first,” she said.
Nelson is an artist in residence at East Jesus, an art colony at the Slabs.
Jim Porter, a public land management specialist with the State Lands Commission, confirmed the state considered selling the Slabs about 20 years ago. While there have been inquiries about the land over the years, the only purchase applications on file with the agency are those by Salvation Mountain Inc. and Slab City Community Group Inc.
“I had a couple other people call me, feel me out about it,” Porter said.
But, “the filing of those purchase applications started the ball rolling,” he added. “We’re looking at the feasibility of pursuing the sales.”
The state is in the process of appraising the area.
“Potential cleanup cost might outweigh value of land,” Porter said. “We don’t have plans other than to pursue these applications,” he added.
It should be noted that many Slab City residents get by on government assistance such as Social Security and disability. None pay taxes for the land they live on. And life at the Slabs is only “off the grid” in the sense that there are no amenities. United Parcel Service trucks have been observed driving into the area. Imperial County law enforcement and fire department officials visit the Slabs regularly.
Imperial County Fire Department responded to 132 calls to the area in 2013, an average of 11 per month, according to county Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas. The majority of those calls were medical aid requests, he said.
Yet, “I don’t believe we are deriving an economic benefit from the land,” said Sherry Pemberton, chief of external affairs and legislative liaison for State Lands Commission.
That Bright secretly filed the purchase application does not sit well with a number of residents. They dismiss her assertions that a threat is imminent.
“There is not a single substantiated piece of evidence (that) tells us that anybody is going to do anything,” said Gary Brown, a wiry, white-haired man who arrived at the Slabs more than four years ago. He lives in a 38-foot motor coach.
Brown considers a set of Slab City Community Group bylaws proof that the group wishes to do more than just preserve a way of life at the Slabs.
The purpose of the group, according to its bylaws, is to provide “education and charity for Slab City residents by allowing affordable living space to low-income, moderate-income, elderly, and or disabled residents of Slab City.”
Its goals and objectives include empowering residents to build a prosperous and healthy community, and to engage in economic redevelopment and stability in Imperial County.
“They claim they want to be a charitable and educational company,” Brown said, laughing. “You don’t need the land to operate a charity.”
“Buying the land is a humongous ball of issues that reach back to Washington,” he added. “And whoever assumes those liabilities here has got to be nuts, which is why nobody bothers us here.”
Bright said the bylaws are designed to govern the group’s board of directors rather than Slab City residents.
James Hoyle, a retired veteran and eight-year Slab City resident, is blunt in his assessment.
“The threat (by outsiders) is no different now than it was 20 years ago,” said Hoyle, who said he was best man at Bright’s wedding. “If the state is smart, they’re not going to turn over the insane asylum to the inmates.”
Michael Gohl, a winter resident of 28 years and full-time resident of seven years, addressed the Slab City Community Group’s board of directors in a letter.
“In the past we have enjoyed the benefits of staying on property owned by an absentee landlord. This landlord has a full slate, with little funding, few personnel, and heavy workloads,” he wrote.
“The Slab City Community Group Inc., as property owners, would be here in our community responsible for everything. Decisions and actions would have to be made by the board of directors that would (effect) the lives of the residents here at the Slabs. Things would not be the same as with the absentee landlord we have enjoyed over the past 60-plus years. Bottom line, we would lose that abstract feeling of freedom a lot of people talk and write about.”
Not everyone agrees.
“If they say this is what we need to do, I’m going with them,” said Sandi Andrews in regards to the Slab City Community Group’s claims.
Andrews left Oregon for the Slabs after seeing Penn’s “Into the Wild.” The opportunity to play music at William Ammon’s outdoor venue, the Range, played a big part in her decision.
“Over the years people have tried to buy Slab City,” she said. “This would be a perfect place to have a dump or a solar farm.”
Whether the community group manages to buy Slab City remains to be seen. But, the group’s application has divided the community.
“I want everybody to know that we have been one family here at Slab City. People that live in tents or $250,000 motorhomes — we are one family here,” Peter Lonnies said.
He moved to the Slabs from Germany 18 years ago and now lives in a colorful school bus.
“So here we are, and all of a sudden we have a small group of people that want to do some craziness and form a corporation and have a land grab and decide to think for us,” he added.
“I can tell you there are 500 of us. The reason that these other hundreds of them don’t come out is because we have a tremendous amount of hermits that don’t want nothing to do with politics and corporations and money and any of that stuff. I have been here for 18 years in the same spot, and I want to keep it the same way it is. And we have hundreds of people here that want to keep it the same way it is.”
Although the community is divided, Bright continues to worry about “the beast,” that is, society outside the Slabs.
“This is not us versus us. It’s us versus everything out there,” she said.
“I’m sorry that ‘Into the Wild’ got filmed here. I’m sorry Slab City Riot was here. I’m sorry that the party is over, but it is. It has been over for a while. It’s time to wake up,” she said.
“I’m hopeful the last free place in America stays the same. This place can be a model for what could happen for people who have nowhere to live,” she added.
This story first appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, Feb. 16, 2014.