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[Book Review]

Local Knowledge


ABANDONED SAN DIEGO, 96 pages, paperback, published by America Through Time, 2019, Jessica D. Johnson author

review by Rob

I like this little book because I love San Diego. Any book that attempts to reveal useful hidden knowledge pretty much has my vote, but since ABANDONED SAN DIEGO is about my hometown makes it all the more dear. Here’s my disclosure up front. Now you know, I do have a bias. I also need to say Jessica has been a contributor to Reviewer Magazine’s print version, submitting some choice local color editorial that has ran in our pages, most notably a story about exploring the interior of The Lake Hodges Dam. So I like this book for that reason too: its author has been a friend of the magazine. But I’ll try and be professional, give it an honest review anyway and not be a glowing fanboy.

ABANDONED SAN DIEGO covers the region with five chapters. One, Abandoned Mines of San Diego explores a bit of the forgotten local mineral resource exploitation of the past. Two, the Highway That Time Forgot, which details the early twentieth century history of Highway 80. Three, Suburban San Diego Ruins, which may surprise readers with its hidden gems. Four, Urban San Diego Ruins, which is valuable in its cataloging of a diminishing genre. And my favorite, chapter five, Historic Cemeteries, which profiles some of our neglected local grave fields.

The tragic disruption of the Mission Hills Pioneer Park cemetery is most poignant. The graveyards’ defilement reads like an account of historical revisionism during the mid-twentieth century, one politically motivated, an essentially hostile act against the memory of the founders of early San Diego. But why?

There’s much more, such as The California Theater in downtown whose section summons up the ghosts of entertainment and nightlife past with many color photos — the book is well illustrated — and the Sunset Cliffs cave at Smugglers’ Cove highlights the bootleg era when San Diego’s southern border was a new link to Tijuana’s steady stream of contraband.

The only real negative issue I would find with ABANDONED SAN DIEGO is in the title. For so many decades this city has been in the path of progress, not decline. Ever since Los Angeles became traffic-filled and smog-ridden San Diego real estate sellers could add a high percentage as a sun tax. New citizens moving here from back east or the midwest, or any people looking for the good life in a growing city with low crime and sunshine, grabbed up available parcels. There’s never been any real “abandoned” anything here. There’s been “derelict” San Diego, or “sitting temporarily vacant” San Diego, but the owners, their heirs, or hungry would-be purchasers would always have an eye on it, waiting for the right economic moment to make their move, to pounce. Be it because of the excellent natural harbor or the thrillingly varied geography or the fine weather, this has never been a ghost town.

However so much good revealing splendor is packed into this tiny book, and I rarely use this phrase, it’s truly a must-read if you find yourself interested in the fascinating background of what local civic boosters once appropriately called America’s Finest City.

Despite the lack of truly abandoned real estate here, there’s still plenty of subject matter to fill another volume. I asked Jennifer about the old mine in Black Mountain my friends and I used to hike to back in the mid-1970’s which was omitted from ABANDONED SAN DIEGO. It seemed like the perfect story for its first chapter. She cited page space and word count as limitating it in print here but I think it’s listed on her website, She’s also diversifying into covering hidden California.

This was Jessica Johnson’s first outing as a book author and I hope we can look forward to more of her whimsically fresh views about San Diego and beyond.


From Amazon:
About the Author JESSICA D. JOHNSON is a native San Diegan who has lived her entire life in and around “America’s Finest City.” While she loves San Diego’s major attractions, her life’s mission has been to explore and describe the unknown and overlooked wonders of the area. Her work reached fruition in her creation of the website, which has received millions of unique online visits, and has become an invaluable resource for tourists and local explorers alike. Her work has been featured in local and national print media, radio and television, and she has written extensively on a wide variety of things San Diego.

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: America Through Time (February 25, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1634991044
ISBN-13: 978-1634991049
Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.3 x 9.2 inches

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Hidden California: East Jesus

Strange art at East Jesus in Slab City.
Not sure what to make of this one.
[Hidden Art Scene]

East Jesus at Slab City

23 Sidewinder Rd.
Niland, CA 92257

By Jessica Johnson

Let me start off by saying that East Jesus is probably unlike anything you have ever experienced before. This place is brimming with thought-provoking details. I mean, this is REAL art, each piece having a powerful message and ALL being created from recycled material or death. These installations do what art is supposed to do: it leaves you feeling moved. I would imagine most people will have strong opinions about the artwork, the gallery (if you will) and Slab City in general (where East Jesus is located). I want to make it clear that Slab City is not for the light-hearted. This is a fascinating community that is filled with highly controversial beings–and I get the feeling they like it that way. Do your research before heading out here. I mean it. Make sure this area is for you. You can get a better grasp of this area on the Abandoned Homes of Salton City, Salton City and Salvation Mountain pages. My first tip is to go in COOL weather as it gets extremely hot out here. It’s hard to enjoy things when you’re burning up and dehydrated.

We were fortunate enough to get a tour by one of the residents, Mopar (otherwise known as the Wizard). Mopar is a colorful and knowledgeable individual who explained each installation to us and basically blew our minds with the genius behind each piece. We got a behind-the-scenes tour which gave us a glimpse into their housing facility. The place is head-to-toe art. So cool!

One of the most important tips I can give you no matter what is to come here with respect. If it’s not what you thought it would be, don’t get snobby. Be respectful as you truly have entered a different realm with its own set of rules. Be polite and don’t come empty handed! These people are living off of a next-to-nothing budget which is partially why they’re so innovative! Offer them stuff they can make art out of, food, money, booze, whatever.

Mopar, otherwise known as "The Wizard."
Mopar, otherwise known as “The Wizard.”

This is a fascinating subculture that we are fortunate enough to live close-enough to witness firsthand. You will find all sorts of people out here, all with one motivation in mind: living free and away from ‘the man’ (or the beast as they refer to him as). You will find good people out here and extremely shady people. Trust your gut.

I’m not really sure what direction to go with this page because I could go so many different ways. We did not explore Slab City too long because for me, personally, it was a rather suffocating energy. I think I’m too sensitive to these types of things though. I respect living off the grid, the free-thinkers, artist communities–that is all beautiful. Slab City is all of that except with a completely dark and sinister twist which you would have to be blind & deaf to not catch onto.

This is a highly complex community that cannot really be lumped into one category besides having a few common grounds–living off the grid & as far away from the “man” as possible. This is an area with no rules and where one is left to do whatever pleases them. When man is given that type of freedom, almost anything is possible. Then top that off with the type of people that are heading out here: many whom are running away from some sort of trouble they were once part of. For that reason, there is a very thick, swallowing energy and it saddens me. In a way, it is a collection of people who just couldn’t handle the “real” world. That has the potential to be wonderful if everyone keeps a level head and unites to create health & beauty, but one gets the feeling that levelheadedness is almost looked down upon out here.

On the flip side, I have done my fair share of research and am truly impressed with what they’re doing on many levels. The amount of innovation going on and self-sustainability is truly admirable. They are treating this place as its own town complete with a dance hall, church, internet cafe, hot spring and even a city council with board members. For many people, this is the only place that they can call home, and on top of that, the only place they’ve ever truly felt at home. This is heaven on earth for many of them and I completely respect that.

If I had to attempt to describe Slab City I would say it is a sophisticated homeless shelter created by the people for the people. You would probably feel safer visiting here than, say, skid row–although there are still plenty of shady people. There are also extremely intelligent, kind and talented folks and I would not suggest assuming much of anything or underestimating them. There is a force out here.

The thing with all their art is it all has an extremely deep meaning, all meant to take a stab at the superficialities of the modern world.

“We like to drink out here. A lot. We also like our privacy” That is in regards to their beer/wine bottle wall protecting their land. It’s been a long work in progress.

Death is everywhere.
Death is everywhere.
Dilapidated architecture lasts a long time out in the desert.
Dilapidated architecture lasts a long time out in the desert.
They like their privacy in Slab City/East Jesus.
They like their privacy in Slab City/East Jesus.
Strange energy.
SAtrange energy.
Death-centric art.
Death-centric art.
Mopar said this one here represents a man chained to all the junk he's accumulated through life.
Mopar said, “This one here represents a man chained to all the junk he’s accumulated through life.”
They apparently like to drink out there, a LOT.
They apparently like to drink out there, a LOT.

From their website for East Jesus:

Blooming around a re-purposed shipping container in the middle of the desert like a Kubrickian vision of the dawn of man, it is at once an anachronism and the only real representation of our depraved modernity; an artifact of ye olde future, an apocryphal codex of post-apocalyptica, a reverse-engineered Garden of Eden. Experimental, extensible, and completely habitable, East Jesus is constructed entirely of salvaged refuse and recycled materials — the discarded afterbirth of the Industrial Age and the sacrifices of its priests — and powered solely by the sun. Charlie’s infectious, polymathic mania was a persistent one, far outliving the frailties of his flesh; though he is gone, the echoes of his life still send out signals to the cold corners of the noosphere, calling out to the like-minded and bidding them come see what could have been. As a result East Jesus is now populated by an ever-rotating cast of artists, builders, writers, musicians, freethinkers, merry pranksters, wandering messiahs, the dispossessed, the damned.

Situated in the harshest, most remote part of Slab City, California — itself a radioactive dumping ground for the pariahs and lepers of the First World — and suffering from extreme temperatures year round, that East Jesus still survives is a testament to the tenability of mutation and the stubborn hearts of those who call it home. It sits tameless among the bones of things left behind and worlds that never were or are yet to come, and flays life of the temporary and the superficial to reveal what we in our surrender and hopeful naïveté have deemed what matters, what mutates, what lasts: love, art, the will of the individual, the strength of the collective, the desolate and tenebrous beauty of destruction, the toxic acid-burn of creativity. It is a legacy of madmen and dissidents made to survive until the next age of the world, when our ruins will tell the archaeologists of the future and the visitors from other worlds that we, too, were here.

To exist in a place never meant for man, to dig roots in the hardpack sand and stand day after day against the relentless sun, to breed the bastard brainchildren of our imaginations into something viable and real — this is mutation. And because the painting is the brush is the hand is the artist, Charlie Russell was the mutagen, an avatar of the anarchistic aether that spun galaxies from nothing and wove webs between stars. When the waters receded and the dove returned to Noah with the olive branch in its beak, it was the crow — not content with capture — that kept flying, seeking, searching for a place beyond the bloated horizon.

It had to land somewhere.

East Jesus is Charlie’s personal truth, and truth survives when the rest of us are all blown away.