Slab City and Freedom

Over the weekend, I read Charlie Hailey’s Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place (MIT 2018). It was a pretty complex little book that will keep me thinking for weeks to come. Charlie Hailey is an architect and the book features the photography of Donovan Wylie. Hailey’s work on camps was particularly influential in our thinking as we developed the North Dakota Man Camp Project and the integration of photographs with narrative paralleled our own effort in The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. Hailey’s book is palpably archaeological (although he never makes that claim), and reflects the dynamic fringe of the archaeology of the contemporary world where the field opens itself to folks who do not claim any allegiance to the discipline.  

The book describes Slab City, in the Colorado Desert of California. Standing on the site of the former World War II training base of Fort Douglas, Slab City is a long-standing, impromptu community of squatters who make their home on public land amid the slabs left behind by the short-lived camp. At its peak in the 1990s, Slab City accommodated over 3000 residents who lived off the grid without a connection to water, sewage, or electricity. The peak time was in the winter months when snow birds from the north combined with other residents some of whom would live in Slab City all year around. This diverse group of people claimed lots, build structures, and organized a loose sense of community around common interests, statuses, or places of origin.     

Slab City today is less densely populated, but the desert preserved evidence for its history. From the slabs, guard stations, and half-buried fence posts of the World War II camp to “gopher hole” latrines, arts, and seemingly random marks in the desert left by subsequent residents, Hailey’s description of Slab City traced the material history of this place while also considering how these remains offer a commentary on being free. He traces the tension between the freedom of the desert with its moving dust and sand and the desire to enclose space first at the military camp and then among residents of Slab City. The abandoned World War II era sentry posts at the entrance to Slab City reappear throughout the book marking the edges of the settlement and superimposing one kind of freedom over another.

The use of cans, stones, tires, pallets, and other detritus to mark out one’s space in Slab City represents another form of enclosure. We saw similar strategies in the Bakken oil patch as residents of RV parks sought to reinforce the otherwise invisible borders of their lots. The irony that enclosure represents a strategy for defining freedom in Slab City is not lost on Hailey. The periodic appearance of UPS trucks, boxes reserved for local newspapers, and available accommodates via Air BnB further complicate freedom at the margins of the grid. The instability of these things and the persistence of the desert offer a counterpoint. 

Hailey’s Slab City is nearly empty. He refers to two or three individuals in the book. The people of Slab City don’t tell his story. In a sense, he preserves their freedom, but allowing them to maintain their anonymity. This goes beyond the standard practice of using nicknames at Slab City and obscures the presence of individuals in the desert. The way in which attention to material culture protects the individual in an era of ubiquitous surveillance resonated with some of our efforts to document temporary settlement in the Bakken oil patch. While we did record numerous interviews, we spent at least as much (if not more) attention documenting things, and unintentionally, the interviews and the things that we documented rarely interact. In other words, the things are both deeply personal and anonymous. (It may well be that part of what an archaeology of the 21st century can do is talk about the intimate practices of everyday life without connecting these practices to particular individuals. In some sense, I wonder whether archaeology can anonymize big data by dislocating the link between the individual and the their things.)  Hailey’s view of Slab City is strangely similar. Humans shaped the landscape, but like the nicknames of residents, the relationship between specific individuals and their material traces remains unclear. In a world defined by control and surveillance practices that seek to limit our freedom, Hailey sticks true to the title of the book and does what he can to leave Slab City as the last free place.         

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