The Capital for the Multitude

 

quartzsite from a distance

 

If there were a capital for the multitude”—and by definition there can be no such thing”—it would be Quartzsite, Arizona. During the scorching desert summer, Quartzsite is a sleepy town of 3,397 inhabitants, but every year between October and March, a new breed of nomad descends upon the town as hundreds of thousands of campers bring their motorhomes to Quartzsite. These “snowbirds,” generally retirees from colder climates, settle in one of the more than seventy motorhome parks in the area or in the outlying desert administered by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM].

The BLM and local law enforcement agencies estimate that a total of 1.5 million people”—some recent reports suggest in excess of 2 million”—spend time in the Quartzsite area between October and March, a mass migration that temporarily forms one of the fifteen largest cities in the United States. If all of these residents inhabited Quartzsite at once, the result would be a more populous urbanized area than Dallas, San Jose, or San Diego, possibly even bigger than Phoenix or Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest city.

Quartzsite is the id for Los Angeles and all generic, horizontal cities of the contemporary era. These “urban sprawl” cities, such as Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston are products of mobility, transitory architecture, and relatively little planning. And yet even though architects and planners hate such cities, these kind of communities remain popular with people.

But if Quartzsite is sprawl, it is super-dense sprawl. Quartzsite makes a radical break with the surrounding emptiness. Although it rejects vertical density and permanence, Quartzsite proposes a new kind of super-dense sprawl, achieving a remarkable horizontal density as motorhome is parked next to motorhome. Even the largest class of motorhomes is hardly more than 30 square meters in size. With motorhome parked next to motorhome, often to access common infrastructure such as water or power, the 94.0 square kilometers of Quartzite are remarkably dense. With the majority of Quartzsite’s campgrounds within town boundaries, a rough estimate”?—assuming 1 million inhabitants at its peak”— would suggest that Quartzsite has some 10,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, roughly the same as the density of New York City. Since statistics at Quartzsite are hard to come by, even if we conservatively halved that number or, even more cautiously, quartered it, Quartzsite would be far denser than Atlanta with its 1,121 residents per square kilometer.

Notwithstanding its literal creation by vehicles, Quartzsite is also relatively ecologically sound. Motorhome dwellers have to live in tight spaces and cut down on waste as a result and, unless they are directly connected to water and power, have to be profoundly conservative about their use of these scarce resources. As a result, Quartzsite is able to subsist on a minimum of infrastructure.

Quartzsite’s history reveals how a city can form as an emergent system. Begun as a simple mineral show for desert rock hounds and people passing through the region via highway, it has grown into an instant city, an international travel destination that forms every winter with virtually no top-down planning.

Quartzsite’s early history is marked by a series of false starts and brief settlements centered on short-lived stagecoach lines and mines. In 1856, Charles Tyson built Fort Tyson, a private fort, for protection against the Indians at a watering hole. Tyson’s Wells, as the new town came to be known, became a stagecoach station. Of the area in 1874, Martha Summerhayes, author of the 1908 book Vanished Arizona. Recollections of the Army Life by a New England Woman would write, “It reeks of everything unclean, morally and physically.”