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Llano del Rio: human nature & water constraints at a Mojave commune

Housing prices have transformed California; the State has been losing net population due, in part, to increased difficulties for people to rent or buy.

But new laws allowing secondary homes (ADUs) across the State and curving restrictions to build apartments next to public transportation, among other initiatives, are trying to counter the trend amid epidemic levels of homelessness in the Bay Area and Los Angeles area.

View of the Llano del Rio utopian community from its hotel (Hotel Llano)

Interest in experimentation finally comes to tackle the problem, and several initiatives try to develop ideas to increase housing availability and incentivize more humane urbanism frameworks, from potentially transforming empty office buildings into residences to erecting prefab apartment buildings in record time.

Meanwhile, VC firms have invested in the last years in ADU startups such as Cover, Abode, or Jupe, whereas some suburban areas are trying to transform themselves by allowing aspects of co-living and intentional communities. But, as inflation and a hike in interest rates make borrowing more expensive, investment in experimental housing initiatives could falter again.

Experimentation on housing

The current interest in experimentation around housing in California has parallels in the past. The communal utopias of the sixties and seventies tried to counter the social rigidity around self-organization in a moment of transformation.

In the summer issue of 1972, the California Historical Quarterly published an article combining two texts about the failed Colony of Llano del Rio in the Mojave Desert. According to the introduction of the texts by the California Historical Quarterly:

“Because of the present widespread interest in communal living styles, we are presenting on the following pages a two-part story on the California years of the Llano colony by two writers, separated by twenty years in time.”

A Double Look at Utopia: The Llano del Rio Colony. Aldous Huxley, Paul Kagan. California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1972), pp. 117-154 (38 pages)

The texts (an excerpt from a story by Aldous Huxley, Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, inspired in the ruins of the intentional community; and Portrait of a California Utopia, by Paul Kagan) show a fascination by the naïveté and mistakes of the Llano colony that still persist today.

Proof of it: in an enticing article for Los Angeles Times (May 2023), André Naffis-Sahely travels through the history and remains of Llano del Rio, reminding us that California’s utopian experiments, from intentional communities to urban and agricultural experiments at scale, didn’t begin in the 60s’, and can be traced back to pre-Statehood and the Gold Rush era in the 1850s’.

Urbanism and conviviality

Like today, the desire for communal living and experimentation was propelled by financial instability and the inability to acquire property due to an institutionally perceived lack of solvency. Things haven’t changed as much as we think they have.

Few cooperative living experiments in California failed so vigorously and left an imprint in California’s collective unconscious as sound as Llano del Rio, a colony in Antelope Valley founded in high spirits and boasting big ideas that faced the main environmental constraints of the Mojave high desert: it could get extremely hot and cold, and water sources were unreliable.

One thousand shares of the Llano del Rio venture, worth $1 each

The socialist commune of Llano del Rio, established in May 1914, filed for bankruptcy in 1918 after failing to secure water rights that could develop a viable economy beyond the San Gabriel Mountains at 3,500 feet of altitude.

The story of its demise is not one of infighting among incumbents but an environmental one: the creek nearby was so unreliable that Llano needed to purchase water. Long-term agreements didn’t materialize, so some of the settlers (around 60 families) decided to start the New Llano, Louisiana community.

The several brick-and-mortar structures that survived the demise of Llano del Rio are like timeless ruins of an ancient civilization in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the Tehachapi mountains to the northwest, and the San Gabriel mountains to the south.

Long-gone experiments in South Cal’s High Desert

Over twenty years after the colony was abandoned, English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley relocated from his house in Hollywood Hills to a 40-acre farmhouse in Antelope Valley, Pearblossom Ranch, next to Llano del Rio. Huxley’s impaired eyesight, which had prevented him from studying medicine in his youth, had deteriorated.

Like a century ago, the air is clear and thin in Antelope Valley, away from the stalled dome of activity and congestion of the Greater Los Angeles area on the other side of the San Gabriels, northeast of the city.

No wonder that Huxley, who wrote in Llano the allegorical children’s story The Crows of Pearblossom (dedicated to his niece and nephew), stated that his sight improved dramatically there, thanks to the crisp and bright lighting of the area. His improvements remained disputed for the rest of his days despite his insistence on the advantages of a dubious therapy he’d tried. He compiled his accounts in The Art of Seeing, published in 1942, almost two years after moving to Llano.

Aldous Huxley’s home in Antelope Valley

The author of Brave New World wasn’t impervious to the story behind Llano del Rio, founded by Job Harriman, a preacher, lawyer, philosopher, and socialist politician from Indiana described by André Naffis-Sahely as “Lincolnesque.”

This is how Aldous Huxley described Job Harriman at the beginning of his essay on the Llano colony:

“In this part of the desert Ozymandias consists of an abandoned silo and the ruins of a cow byre. ‘The hands that mocked’—mocked themselves in the very act of so laboriously creating these poor things—were the hands of a thousand idealists; ‘the heart that fed’ belonged to a Marxist lawyer, with a Gladstone collar and the face of a revivalist or a Shakespearean actor. Job Harriman was his name; and if the McNamara brothers had not unexpectedly confessed to the dynamiting of the Times building, he would in all probability have become the first Socialist mayor of Los Angeles.”


“Another man would have admitted defeat. Not Harriman. If Los Angeles would not have him as its mayor, he would go out into the wilderness and there create a new, better city on his own.”

Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, 1953; from the book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley amid the Llanos’ ruins

Harriman’s charisma had brought him years before to become a strong contender in the Mayor of Los Angeles elections, which he narrowly lost in 1911. Job Harriman collected more votes (20,183, or 44.32% of the total) than his main rival, current mayor George Alexander (16,790 votes, 36.87% of the total). Alexander won the runoff by a wide margin, nonetheless.

The bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910, by union workers and the trial of the suspects in April 1911, in which Harriman served as a lawyer, ended up being used by the Alexander campaign to associate Harriman with the most violent unionized workers in Los Angeles, which may have cost him the election in December. His public image wouldn’t recover from it.

Unable to test his ideals on a city, Harriman created his own short-lived utopia in Antelope Valley. The project, promoted as “the world’s greatest cooperative community,” couldn’t turn the dry landscape around.

Full page ad, The Western Comrade, July 1914; Job Harriman had purchased the monthly magazine to help promote the venture

Despite his eyesight issues, Huxley may have stumbled upon the same site any visitor can rediscover nowadays: at least officially, the ruins are registered as California Historical Landmark No. 933.

A mere five miles east of Pearblossom, a territory where reality and magical thinking have blended since Aldus Huxley’s times in the area, any visitor can walk among the ruins of a town that wanted to change the world:

“As you slow to a crawl, a couple of chimney stacks come into view, the final remnants of a large building a few feet from the road’s shoulder. Standing atop its foundations, you will begin to notice rocky outlines through the greasewood and creosote, revealing the outlines of hundreds of structures, including houses, storage tanks, and open-air aqueducts, stretching into the distance.”

The ghosts of California’s most utopian experiments live in the remains of communes; André Naffis-Sahely, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2023

Harriman’s bet: land with little water in the High Desert

The desert expanse looks bare, ready to host a cinema set trying to bring to life some of Studio Ghibli’s most evocative post-Apocalyptic landscapes, and it’s difficult to imagine that, for a short period at the beginning of the twentieth century, the area hosted expansive orchards stretching towards the faraway slopes.

When it all started on May Day 1914, the Llano del Rio utopian community had a bold plan, perhaps too bold for a desertic land not yet connected by reliable road to Los Angeles (the first reliable paved road arrived in the 1920s, and relative development in the area would come in the 1940s with the aerospace industry).

The first step was the most difficult one: to create community-owned farms that could feed everyone and sell the surplus to fund additional industries such as “apiaries, hatcheries, canneries, smithies, brickyards, and even a film studio.” The idea attracted families and individuals from the region, reaching 1,500 people in late 1917. One year after, however, the experiment prematurely died of lack of water.

First edition of The Crows of Pearblossom, by Aldous Huxley (1967)

Job Harriman had been able to overcome the community’s first obstacle, property rights, by overpaying big tracts of land in Antelope Valley (9,000 acres of mainly boulder-strewn desert landscape, virtually worthless) with the help of investors. Each member of the commune had to buy a share, and the proceeds were reinvested in operations:

“Most communes don’t have a board of directors, a secretary or a treasurer, but Llano did. The colony was born as the Mescal Water and Land Co., a corporation that raised capital from banks and issued stock. Each fresh arrival wishing to join the colony would be asked to buy 500 shares at $1 apiece, with the option to buy more, although all shareholders were capped at $2,000. As Harriman put it, this effectively made the colonists’ stockholder-employees.'”

The ghosts of California’s most utopian experiments live in the remains of communes; André Naffis-Sahely, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2023

Tragedy of the commons in Antelope Valley

Among the pioneering intentional community members were farmers but also actors from the growing entertainment industry, entrepreneurs, musicians, clerks. Children played outdoors—in today’s terms, free-range parenting—and attended Montessori schools. Medical care was free, and neighbors weren’t struggling in private with their mortgages since they didn’t exist. Moreover, offspring of the community could attend college tuition-free “in exchange for four hours of labor a day.”

Harriman envisioned a future city that could serve as a template for the region—and the world. With that purpose in mind, he enrolled architect Alice Constance Austin to design a plan for Llano.

Women at Llano del Rio

Austin designed a circular city on a radial grid with lots occupied by “kitchenless houses, freeing women from domestic servitude.” Other ideas were equally bold:

“All houses were to be connected to communal daycare areas via underground passages wide enough for electric cars, reducing congestion on the surface. Borrowing from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern traditions, Austin planned for houses made of solid concrete, with thick walls to keep them cool, and flat roofs where urban gardens would be planted.”

The ghosts of California’s most utopian experiments live in the remains of communes; André Naffis-Sahely, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2023

The plan never had a chance once water quickly became the issue where all the colony’s efforts converged, becoming the source of Llano’s quick demise. The sole local water source, Big Rock Creek, couldn’t satisfy the demands of the newcomers and keep up with those of the old ranchers in the area, and the source quickly reached its limits due to a dynamic of competition for resources that causes over capacity, depletion, and environmental collapse, a phenomenon which, decades later, American ecologist Garrett Hardin would name the “tragedy of the commons.”

To keep the money coming in and maintain the spirits despite the increasing evidence, the Llano colony placed ads in LA’s new socialist magazine, the Western Comrade, in the May 1917 issue, some of which were written by Harriman, then already 56 years old:

“Are you tired of the competitive world? Do you want to get into a position where every hour’s work will be for yourself and your family? Do you want assurances of employment and provisions for the future? Ask for the booklet entitled Gateway to Freedom. Subscribe to the Western Comrade … and keep posted on the progress of the colony.”

The Western Comrade, Los Angeles, May 1917

The issue boasted about the colony and lied outright about its guaranteed access to vital resources. Regarding water, the Western Comrade issue on the Llano experiment stated:

“An abundance of clear, sparkling water coming from mountain springs is sufficient to irrigate thousands of fertile acres. The climate is mild and delightful, the soil is fertile, and markets are not far distant.”

The Western Comrade, Los Angeles, May 1917

It took one year of drought

A reliable source of water would have sustained Llano’s agricultural production, which was already peaking in 1917 and getting close to providing 90% of Llano’s food needs with 2,000 acres of corn, grains, and alfalfa. But a slight change in weather patterns derailed the effort when drought and more irrigation needs made crops impossible in the spring of 1918. At that time:

“Realizing the location he had chosen could not support stable foundations for his increasingly ambitious project, Harriman and his collaborators began laying plans to relocate the colony to a new site in Louisiana. The end came quickly and unceremoniously. Homes were abandoned, lawsuits filed, and accusatory fingers wagged in all directions. Neighbors ransacked the colony for every brick, plank, and nail, and the desert slowly reclaimed Llano.”

The ghosts of California’s most utopian experiments live in the remains of communes; André Naffis-Sahely, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2023

Despite its short life, the Llano colony left an imprint on the children born or at least partially raised in the colony, some of whom would use their experience as an inspiration for their work as adults. Architect Gregory Ain, designer of the innovative 10-unit Avenel Homes (Avenel Cooperative Housing) built in 1947 in Silver Lake, is one among many Llano children. The houses were relatively small (960 square feet, or 89 m2) but praised for their indoor-outdoor living conditions and their versatility.

Llano del Rio ruins, registered as California Historical Landmark #933

Like Gregory Ain, many people from Llano would carry positive memories of the naïve communal experiment in Antelope Valley for the rest of their lives.

Vision vs. execution

Observing the Llano lunar landscape from his hacienda in Antelope Valley, Huxley reflected on how little it’s needed to forget solemn words and big promises. As he wrote in Ozymandias, an anonymous enthusiast wrote an entry in the Llano View Book praising the colony’s prospects. It was 1917:

“‘The success of complete cooperation has now been demonstrated convincingly. The demonstration is the most thorough that can be asked for.’ The colony is now ‘too firmly established to be affected by anything except a concerted and organized effort backed by Capital. Its future is clear.’ These words were penned and printed, at the Llano publishing house, in the summer of 1917. Before the year was out, that clear future was a thing of the past. The company was bankrupt, the colonists had dispersed.”

“Within twenty-four hours of their departure playful iconoclasts had smashed five hundred dollars’ worth of windows; within a week, a large frame hotel and several scores of houses and workshops had been demolished and carried off piecemeal by the homesteaders who precariously represented capitalism in the wilderness. Only the silo and the foundations of the cow byre remained; they were made of concrete and could not be hauled away.”

Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, 1953, from the book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley

Huxley understood well what had happened:

“To the brute facts of meteorology in arid country Job Harriman was resolutely indifferent. When he thought of human affairs, he thought of them only as a Socialist, never as a naturalist.”

Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, 1953, from the book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley

Having purchased a small portion of the water rights of a creek that would run completely dry occasionally, Harriman was, above all, a terrible planner.

Architect Alice Constance Austin to design a plan for Llano: a circular city on a radial grid with lots of bold innovations; when she was appointed to do the drawings the colony was about to fall apart

He tried to settle over a thousand eager cooperators in desert land without envisioning an investment in reliable water, when, on a good water year, the whole colony could have raised crops and cattle “worth a hundred thousand dollar of the times,” enough to sustain fifty or a hundred people.

Infighting and the weight of reality in Louisiana

Things didn’t go better in the following experiment in Louisiana, pointedly described by Huxley in Ozymandias:

“But, long before this final catastrophe, there had been nothing to eat, and the majority of the colonists had returned, without their savings, to the world of free competition. A few, under Harriman’s leadership, migrated in a special train to Louisiana, where they had collectively bought an abandoned lumber camp and several thousand denuded acres. There was another blissful dawn, followed by a prolonged struggle with a hundred ferocious Texans, who had been invited to join the community, but had not, apparently, been told that it was a cooperative. When these extremely rugged individualists had gone, taking with them most of the colony’s livestock and machinery, the survivors settled down to the dismal realities of life on an inadequate economic foundation.”

“Work was hard, and for diversion there were only the weekly dances, the intrigues of several rival brush gangs and the spectacle of the struggle for power between the ailing Harriman and an ex-insurance salesman of boundless energy, called George T. Pickett. By 1924, Harriman was out—for good.”

Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, 1953, from the book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley

On human nature

The demise of New Llano in the late thirties due to poor management, in-fighting, and a combination of environmental, economic, and convivial, also tells a tale of human nature:

“But despair is only the penultimate word, never the last. The last word is realism—the acceptance of facts as they present themselves, the facts of nature and of human nature, and the primordial fact of that spirit that transcends them both and yet is in all things. The original Ozymandias was no realist; nor was poor Mr. Harriman. In the conditions prevailing at Llano and, later, at New Llano, integral cooperation eas as fatally condemned to self-destruction as are, in any circumstances, the ambitions of a king of kings. Fortunately, unrealistic cooperation does no harm except to the cooperators. Unrealistic imperialism, on the other hand, cannot commit suicide without inflicting misery and death upon innumerable victims.”

“The economic problems of community living can be solved by any group possessed of common sense and capital. The psychological problems are much more difficult and demand, for their solution, something rarer than either cash or shrewdness.”

Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed, 1953, from the book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley