There’s something about L.A. that draws dreamers. Maybe it’s the temperate climate and fertile soil, or the fact that it’s as far removed from the rigidity of the nation’s eastern cities as you can get. It’s a place where visionaries can stake a claim and build a city on their ideals—a religious compound, say, or a sex commune. It’s also a land that draws the delusional. Promises of sunshine, oranges, and edenic landscapes beckoned families west on transcontinental railroads and Route 66. Aspiring stars packed up and set out for Hollywood, sure of finding fame. Maybe when the overblown hopes that impel us here run dry, they leave behind a residual gullibility. If you think of L.A. as a city of hope deflected, the allure of an egalitarian socialist commune or a cult led by a charismatic man begins to make sense. Many unusual utopian societies have flourished here, but few have lasted. Here’s a look at the rise and fall of some of the more eccentric.
Llano del Rio
Job Harriman was the United States’ first Socialist vice presidential candidate (he ran on a ticket with Eugene Debs and lost). He also ran for mayor of L.A., twice, and lost both of those races as well—though not by much. Unable to turn the nation or Los Angeles into a Socialist utopia, he decided to create one himself, founding Llano Del Rio in the Antelope Valley in 1914. The self-sustaining, racially exclusive community grew to around 1,000 before infighting and squabbles over water rights with local farmers forced Harriman and his followers to relocate to Louisiana. All that remains are foundations, walls, and a few scattered chimneys.
When physician Finis Ewing Yoakum had an encounter with God on a hill in Highland Park in the 1895, he designated the place Mt. Pisgah (after the peak where God showed Moses the Promised Land) and devoted his life to feeding, healing, and housing the downtrodden. He doled out medicine, vegetarian food, and the Gospel from his home, around which grew a tent city of homeless and, apparently, at least one outlaw gunslinger. When his mission outgrew itself, he relocated the whole operation to a ranch in Simi Valley and built Pisgah Grande, a missional community complete with schoolhouse, dining hall, cabins, a post office, and a prayer tower. After Yoakum’s death in 1920, his followers eventually disbanded.
The Theosophical Society—a group dedicated to pursuing the somewhat vague traditions of divine wisdom and ancient knowledge—began building Krotona, their national headquarters, in Beachwood Canyon in 1912. The commune, which attracted wealthy Angelenos and Hollywood types like Charlie Chaplin, was surrounded by serene gardens of olive trees and date palms. It included a cluster of summer houses, an inn, and meditation room, an a space where a “scientist” worked to detect human auras. The group later relocated to Ojai, where it still operates today. Much of the society’s old digs—plus a handful of members’ whimsically-designed homes—remains in Beachwood Canyon.
The Hog Farm
This semi-portable commune up in Sunland was founded in the ’60s by the clown prince of hippies himself, Wavy Gravy. With community duties coordinated by a “Dance Master” and “Dance Mistress,” members scavenged usable food discarded by supermarkets, performed group breathing exercises, did quite a bit of LSD, and lived for the moment. They’re possibly best known for flying to New York to provide security and food at Woodstock. The collective has long since abandoned the Sunland site, and most of the structures are gone.
The Source Family
In the early ‘70s, WWII veteran Jim Baker took on the name Father Yod, drove around in a white Rolls-Royce wearing a white suit, opened the city’s first spiritual vegetarian restaurant, married 14 wives, and founded a health-food hippie cult. In 1972 he moved his followers into the Mother House in Los Feliz, then relocated shortly thereafter (in part due to creeped-out neighbors) to the Father House in Nichols Canyon. It was there that they lived with their 140-person troupe, recording psych rock albums and delivering a ton of babies, until they skipped off to Hawaii in 1975, where Father Yod died in a hang gliding accident.