Happy quasquicentennial, Orange County!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 11, 2014 03:00pm | Post a Comment
On this day in 1889, Orange County, California was born, making it 125 years young today. 

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Orange County

In early 1889, Pemberton Medicine Company (later Coca-Cola) incorporated in Atlanta, Colombia Phonograph (later Columbia Records) launched, Japan adopted the Meiji Constitution and the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris. Meanwhile in Southern California, the communities on Coyote Creek's left bank seceded those on the right bank and incorporated as the County of Orange. More precisely, on 11 March a bill was signed into law which allowed for voters to vote whether or not to approve the motion to incorporate -- which they did (2,509 to 500) on 4 June, 1889. But today's date is the one that is observed by most of Orange County's friends and family as its birthday.

It wasn't the first time county borders within California had changed. In the first half century after the US invaded and conquered Alta California from Mexico, the county borders have changed several times; San Bernardino County split from Los Angeles County in 1853, parts of Los Angeles County became Kern County in 1866, and in 1893 Riverside County was formed out of what had been parts of San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Several attempts were made and failed to establish Orange County in the 1870s and '80s.

Today Orange County includes the incorporated communities of Aliso Viejo, Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Dana Point, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Irvine, La Habra, La Palma, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Orange, Placentia, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Stanton, Tustin, Villa Park, Westminster, and Yorba Linda

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of North Orange County

Orange County's unincorporated communities include Coto de Caza, Cowan Heights, Emerald Bay, Ladera Ranch, Las Flores, Lemon Heights, Midway City, Modjeska Canyon, North Tustin, Orange Park Acres, Rancho Mission Viejo, Red Hill, Rossmoor, Silverado, and Trabuco Canyon.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of South County

Unlike Los Angeles County, which is usually viewed as comprising about twenty regions (unless you're one of those unfortunate bipolar "Eastside vs Westside" types), Orange County is usually just divided into two -- North County and South County -- and the dividing line between the two is considered by most to be California State Route 55.


Most peoples' ideas about Orange County probably owe more to television series like The OC (primarily filmed in Los Angeles's South Bay) and quasi-scripted "reality" series like Real Housewives of Orange County and Laguna Beach... or perhaps to films like Gleaming the Cube, Suburbia, Brick than they do to firsthand experience. Of course any sensible person knows better than to trust Hollywood when it comes to depicting the reality of Southern California so set aside our preconceptions and consider some facts. 


recently named Orange County one of the country's most diverse places (placing it above even Los Angeles County). There is no ethnic or racial majority in Orange County (or Los Angeles County, for that matter).  Roughly 44% of Orange Countians are non-Latino white, 34% are Latino of any race, 18% are Asian, 2% are black, and 1% are Native American. It's home to the largest Vietnamese-American community in the world and three widely recognized ethnic enclaves: Little SeoulLittle Arabia, and Little Saigon Additionally there are large populations of Armenian, Chinese, English, Filipino, German, Irish, Jewish, Lebanese, Mexican, Persian, Salvadoran, Scottish, and Taiwanese-Americans. 30% of Orange County's residents were born in another country and 45% speak a language other than English at home. Roughly 31% of Orange County voters are registered as Democrats (the same as the national average) and 42% are registered Republicans -- meaning of course that there's no political majority. 



Garden Grove's Little Seoul is indeed quite little although it's nonetheless the second largest Korean-American community on the West Coast, after Koreatown in Los Angeles. Although it emerged in the 1980s, at just three kilometers long, Little Seoul is still more of a Korean commercial corridor than residential enclave -- Buena Park, Fullerton, and Irvine are all home to much more of North County's Korean-American population, the county's second largest Asian-American population after Vietnamese-Americans. Little Seoul is home to offices of Korea Times; various Korean-American community services; an annual Korean Festival; and many Korean markets, BBQ, cafés, lounges, noodle houses, churches, plazas, and seafood restaurants.


Little Arabia, in Anaheim, is by some estimates the second largest Arab enclave in the country after the one in Dearborn, Michigan. It's also sometimes referred to as Little Gaza on account of the fact that many of its Arabs have roots in Palestine (as well as Palestine's neighbors Egypt and Syria) and that the neighborhood's original designation is Garza Island. There are numerous bakeries, beauty salons, halal butchers, hookah cafés, markets, restaurants and jewelry stores in the neighborhood today that reflect the Arabic community's presence, which began to flourish in the 1990s


Orange County's Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese-American enclave in the country. The neighborhood is also colloquially known as Bolsa, after the main thoroughfare (Bolsa Avenue) of the neighborhood's original borders, which contained a small overlapping area of Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and Westminster. Much as with Koreatown in Los Angeles, the Vietnamese-American population and character has since massively expanded since the original borders were officially designated in 1988 and now parts of Huntington Beach, Midway City, and Stanton also have a strong Vietnamese character. As of the 2010 census, Westminster's population was nearly 48% Asian-American (mostly Vietnamese) and Garden Grove's Vietnamese-American population exceeded 54,000. This translates to vibrant annual Tết Nguyên Đán festivities; more than 500 Vietnamese restaurants (time to move beyond phở and bánh mì); Euro-disco/Vietnamese New Wave; "ethnic" malls; lingerie cafés; and Vietnamese-language television stations, radio stations, and newspapers.

Of course "diversity" extends beyond humanity and Orange County is not just culturally diverse but extremely biodiverse, geographically diverse, and diverse in other ways too. Exploring its corners I've found faux-Spanish seaside villages (San Clemente), faux-Bavarian villages (Old World Village), faux-Utopian futurist villages (Irvine), Eichler tractsItalo-disco performers, great vegetarian Vietnamese food (Bo De Tinh Tam Chay and Au Lac), Isamu Noguchi's California Scenario, Pao Fa Temple, the Crystal CathedralDisneylandKnott's Berry Farmthe largest freestanding wooden structures on the planet (Tustin's WWII-era blimp hangars), Asian Garden Mall (Phước Lộc Thọ), Mission San Juan Capistrano, forests, city centers, parks, mysterious business parks, beaches, red-tile tract house tracts, chaparral-covered mountains, master-planned madness, and biker bars. 


Costa Mesa skyline

As with Los Angeles, Orange County is usually mischaracterized as a vast, sprawling, and completely flat collection of suburbs. However, thanks to nature (which such mischaracterizations conveniently ignore), Orange County actually rises rather dramatically from sea level at the coast to 1,337 meters high at Santiago Peak -- which positively dwarves cities more often characterized as vertical such as Hong Kong, New York, and Shanghai.

Newport Beach with the Santa Ana Mountains behind

Orange County's skyscrapers may provide no competition for height with the Santa Ana Mountains but there are more than of the towering structures in the region than the dated stereotypes suggest. Currently there are at least 27 skyscrapers rising above a height of thirty meters located in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Garden GroveHuntington Beach, IrvineNewport Beach, Orange, and Santa Ana. What's perhaps more surprising is that according to the most recent census, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area is the most densely populated region in the country. Orange County is also the sixth most populous county in the country (after Los Angeles, Cook County (Illinois), Harris County (Texas), Maricopa County (Arizona), and San Diego County).


Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Orange County has a thriving and diverse art scene reflected in the presence of its many museums, art festivals, art centers, and art galleries. In addition there are numerous theaters, cultural festivals, culinary festivals, opera, and Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I'm sure that there are a lot more but off the top of my head I can think of several talented Orange County born-and-bred musical acts such as Social Distortion, Emily's Sassy Lime, Agent Orange, The K-nobsThe VandalsThe Adolescents, Jeff Buckley, Giant Drag.



Orange County is home to one of the Southland's three international airports; John Wayne Airport (the other two are LA/Ontario International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport) which makes getting to it convenient. 

Once on the ground, exploring Orange County is becoming increasingly easy due to an expanding network of public transit options. The workhorse of the region is the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA), which has existed since 1975 and currently operates 78 lines. Smaller local bus and shuttle companies include Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART), Irvine's iShuttle, and Laguna Beach Transit's trolley buses. 

Metrolink train to the sea -- source: AmtrakCal462

Orange County is additionally served by several commuter rail lines including Metrolink's 91, Orange County, and Inland Emp-Orange Co lines as well as Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner (which connects San Luis Obispo and San Diego). In the future (hopefully), Metro's 30 kilometer, planned West Santa Ana Transit Corridor will connect Santa Ana to Norwalk in Southeast Los Angeles County via light rail.

Ferries serving Orange County (from Santa Catalina Island) include Catalina Flyer, which connects with Newport Beach, and Catalina Express, which connects with Dana Point. There are also about 1,600 kilometers of bikeways in Orange County. Most of Orange County is also easily walkable although there sadly hasn't always been a lot of apparent thought given to pedestrians and frequently long stretches of unshaded sidewalk pass by commercial spaces constructed without walkers in mind. Hopefully that too will change as more and more people turn away from car-dependency for every single errand, which will make Orange County an even more vibrant place. 



In 2010 I expanded my blogs about local neighborhoods and cities to Orange County and ever since they've fairly dominated the poll. As I write this, Los Angeles's Glassell Park is in first place followed by the Orange County city of Anaheim in second and Yorba Linda in third. In Orange County I've so far explored and written about Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Orange, San Clemente, Santa Ana, and Tustin. To vote for more Orange County communities for me to explore and write about, click here

California Fool's Gold -- Exploring San Clemente, The Spanish Village in Orange County

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 10, 2013 03:28pm | Post a Comment

Mid-20th century postcard from San Clemente

Until the visit that Una and I took to San Clemente this past weekend, I don’t think that I’d ever visited the place. I’m not entirely sure because nearly all of my trips south on the 5 have ended in Mexico and the stretch of freeway between South Orange County and San Diego County has blended together in my mind into white-walled, red-roofed blur. I may very well stopped in San Clemente to refill the gas tank on at least one occasion but, again, I have no recollection. Now, however, after having spent a weekend there and exploring mostly on foot (the best way to explore) I promise that I won’t confuse San Clemente for any other red-tile community.


San Clemente is the southernmost city in South County. This is inarguable in a geographic sense and arguable in a symbolic sense as well. South Orange County is generally and night entirely inaccurately characterized as a predominantly white, politically conservative, and wealthy place.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of South Orange County

San Clemente is predominantly white -- 76% white (compared to 44% for the county as a whole) although to me it seemed even whiter. However, slow change is afoot and in the past thirty years, the Latino population has more than doubled whilst the Anglo population has shrunk by 14%. According to the 2010 census, the population of San Clemente is 17% Latino but that seemed to me much lower. My perception versus the facts might have to do with the fact that I stayed near North Beach and spent most of my time exploring Downtown and the area next to the ocean -- areas that are possibly much whiter than others. In two days I only heard Spanish being spoken on three occasions, including once in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. Asian-Americans make up just 4% of San Clemente's population, and blacks and Native Americans both make up less than 1% of the population. 

Politically speaking, 56% of San Clemente's population are registered Republicans (compared to 42% for the county as a whole) which is, of course, a majority although maybe less of one than the prevailing stereotypes suggest.

Finally, although there are definitely some very rich folks in San Clemente, the median household income of the community lies somewhere toward the middle, not just of South County, but of all of Orange County. Those seaside and hilltop mansions surely command a high price but it's not every blueblood that would choose to live near an occasionally leaking nuclear energy plant and a military base.

The city seal and flower (bougainvilleas)

It's hard for me to generalize after one weekend but it does seem to me like San Clemente has accepted that it's not a village in Segovia -- white and brown residents alike seem to eat la cena when Spaniards would still be munching on la merienda. The prevailing fantasy nowadays seems to be that it's located not in South County but in the South Pacific. It seemed like everywhere I turned I saw Hawaiian shirts, tikis, and of course, non-native palm trees. I was more surprised to discover signs and menus containing terms like "a hui ho," "mahalo" and "haole." By the time I heard Israel Kamakawiwoʻole emanating from an unseen speaker, I barely took notice. I will also generalize that, aside from the truckload of town boys who yelled at me to "go back to" (something unintelligible), the populace struck me as one of the most friendly that I've yet encountered. 



San Clemente is a small city comprised of several areas and neighborhoods with various levels of distinguishability. Una and I stayed in the proposed North Beach Historic District which has a vibe different from much of the municipality. There’s also a small Downtown, as well as tracts and subdivisions, including Cantomar, Compass Pointe, Cotton Hill, Forster Highlands (including Ashton, Forster Ranch, Las Veredas, Marblehead, Marblehead Coastal, Montego Homes, Rancho Christianitos, Rancho San Clemente, The Reserve, Ridgemore, and San Angelo), Sea Point Estates, Shore Cliff Villas, Southwest San Clemente, Talega, and probably others. Shortly before returning to Los Angeles we took Big Red up into the Santa Ana foothills where ridiculously grand triumphal entrance signs proclaim the existence of seemingly brand new suburban tracts that seem to have been just planted at the edge of civilization. 
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of San Clemente

Beyond these scrubby hills to the northeast are the peaks of the Santa Ana Mountains and the largest of the unincorporated areas of Orange County. Beyond that lies Riverside County. To the southeast is the mostly undeveloped northwestern corner of San Diego County that’s home to a nuclear station and military base. To San Clemente’s northwest are the communities of Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. About 70 kilometers across the water is Santa Catalina Island and south of that, San Clemente Island -- the two large, actual Islands that are part of LA County.

Although you can't really make it out in the photo, that's San Clemente Island on the horizon


For most of human history the area that’s now home to San Clemente was home to the Acagchemem nation. For about 8,000 years their homeland extended from Aliso Creek in the north to Las Pulgas Canyon in the south. One of their largest villages was Panhe, situated near San Mateo Creek and home to an estimated population of 300 or so people. Nearby to the south, along San Juan Creek,  was another significant village, Sajayit.


In 1769 (long before Ole Hanson dreamt of a Spanish Village by the Sea) actual Spaniards arrived in the area as part of Gaspar de Portolá’s overland expedition to Monterey Bay in the north and claimed the land for New Spain. The expedition passed through modern-day San Clemente in late July and, while there, Father Crespi baptized two Acagchem in Cristianitos Canyon which are said to be the first baptisms conducted in Alta California. An historical monument, La Cristianita Monument, commemorates the occasion. The Spanish established Mission San Juan Capistrano nearby (in modern-day San Juan Capistrano) in 1776 and re-named the newly-subjugated aborigines “Juaneños.” The mission imported herds of cattle to graze the area and produce tallow and hides, much of which was traded at the embarcadero in what’s now Dana Point.


After eleven bloody years of conflict, New Spain achieved independence and Alta California became part of the new nation of Mexico. Under Mexico the Spanish Missions were secularized and their lands divided amongst private owners. The lands formerly belonging to the nearby Mission first became the property of Mexican Governor Pio Pico. In 1837, Scouse-Mexican John “Don Juan” Forster married Pio Pico’s sister, Dona Ysidora Pico, and therein acquired part of Pico’s lands. Much of the land that now makes up San Clemente was also part of Rancho Los Desechos, which was granted to Felipe Carrillo and subsequently acquired by Don Juan. Rancho Boca de la Playa (the lands of which included parts of modern day Capistrano Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente) was granted to Emigdio Véjar, who’d overseen operations at the mission until 1845.


The US conquered California in 1848 and admitted it to the Union in 1850. As required by the Land Act of 1851, the previous land owners continued their ownership under their new rulers. Véjar sold his ranch to Juan Avila, who already owned Rancho Niguel, and who passed away in 1863. After that, the land passed to Avila’s son-in-law, Pablo Pryor, who died of poisoning in 1878. In 1883, a large portion of land passed to John Forster’s son, Marcus, and by 1887 the Forster family had acquired most of the land in the area.


The Transcontinental Railroad extended into Southern California in 1876 but the lands that would become San Clemente were still primarily traversed by stagecoach along the Spanish El Camino Real until 1888. That year the Santa Fe Railroad arrived from the south, terminating in neighboring San Juan Capistrano and thereby linking southernmost Los Angeles County to San Diego. In 1901, rail reached San Francisco. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ultimately built a train depot in San Clemente in 1931 although it closed in 1940 and was demolished in 1964.


Orange County seceded from Los Angeles County in 1889 and Santa Ana (about 50 km away) was made the new seat of the newly formed county. In 1906, Max and Herman Goldschmidt formed a partnership with Cornelio Echenique (one of Don Juan’s grandson-in-laws) and they acquired 10,500 acres of land. The Goldschmidts planted vineyards in what has been cow pastures but, with the advent of Prohibition in 1919, their booze farm fell on hard times and they sold their land to millionaire oil baron, banker, cotton broker, businessman, rancher, and DemocratHamilton H. “Ham” Cotton.


The next significant figure in the history of San Clemente was the most important -- Ole Hanson. Ole Hanson was a Norwegian-American born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1874 and passed the Wisconsin bar in 1893. He began working in real estate and co-founded the planned community of Lake Forest Park, Washington in 1912. In 1914 he ran for US Senate on the Bull Moose ticket but lost to a Republican.

In 1918 he was elected mayor of Seattle. Early in Hanson’s mayorship, the Seattle General Strike of 1919 took place in which over 65,000 workers attempted to gain higher wages and better working conditions by staging a general work stoppage. Hanson compared the striking workers to Bolsheviks (this was the beginning of the Red Scare), claimed that the strike was a Communist revolution (although he acknowledged that their means were non-violent), and brought in thousands of police and special deputies who he threatened would shoot any man who attempted to take over the government. The strike ended after five days.

Two months after the strike was broken, an attempt was made on Hanson's life by anarchist disciples of Luigi Galleani and four months after that he resigned. Hanson next toured the country lecturing audiences about the dangers of Bolshevism in America in which he warned audiences that unless the American labor movement was squashed the country would witness widespread “murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth.” [The fact that "free love" is included in that list of terrors amuses me endlessly].


In the 1920s, Hanson re-entered the real estate development world, this time in Southern California. The Spanish Colonial Revival fad had really taken off after the 1915 The Panama-California Expositionin San Diego and in 1921 Hanson bought and developed the Slauson Tract in South Los Angeles with 2,000 Spanish Colonial Revival homes. He also became part owner of the Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara and, after the 1925 earthquake that destroyed much of town, saw Santa Barbara rebuilt as a Spanish Colonial community. 

In 1925, Hanson and a syndicate headed by Cotton designed an 8km2 planned community located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego and named after San Clemente Island. It too would be a Spanish Colonial village and all plans were required by deed to be reviewed by an architectural board to ensure that they were in keeping with his vision, which he described as “…hundreds of white-walled homes bonneted with red tile, with trees, shrubs, hedges of hibiscus, palms and geraniums lining the drives, and a profusion of flowers framing the patios and gardens.”
Architects employed in the design of early San Clemente structures included Carl Lindbom, E. W. Klausen, Eli Simonson, J. H. Nicholson, J. Wilmer Hershey, Leo Smith, Paul McAlister, Paul R. Williams, Richard Sears, Virgil Westbrook, Wessel Kousen, and LeRoy and Arthur Sprang.


San Clemente was officially founded on St. Nicholas Day (6 December) in 1925. The earliest buildings of this instant Spanish village were spread around 125 acres crisscrossed with freshly laid and deliberately winding roads. Hanson wanted the community to be self-contained and self-sufficient and established an iron works, encaustic tile manufacturing plant, a school, a church, a hospital, and other things he thought a self-sufficient town might need. Hanson's vision seems to have convinced others and just 22 months after its foundation, the Los Angeles Times declared the overnight city as “a complete modern community.”


Hanson’s family home, Casa Romanticawas designed by Carl Lindbom and built overlooking the sea in 1927. It was actually named “Casa Romantica” in 1946 by its then owners, Lambert and Patricia Schuyler.

In 1952 it was re-named “Casa Blanca” by Muria and Leslie Whitehouse, although its name at some point reverted. In 1960 it became a home for seniors, which it operated as until 1984 when it became a private event space. In 2000 it became a cultural center and garden and to this day its open to visitors and is asolutely a must-visit both for the home itself and the amazing views of the Pacific, the Channel Islands, and Dana Point that it affords. 


Carl Lindbom also designed the Cotton Estate, with the centerpiece home modeled after a country home in San Sebastian, Spain. When Cotton lived there he hosted on at least one occasion, President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1969, newly-elected president (and Orange County native) Richard Nixon bought the home from Cotton’s widow. Nixon christened the home La Casa Pacifica but it was more popularly known as “The Western White House.” During his presidency Richard and Pat played host to political figures like Eisaku Sato, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Hennry Kissinger, Leonid Brezhnev, Lyndon Johnson, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu as well as Richard's buddy, Bebe Robozo.

After his resignation from office in 1974,  the Nixons lived at Casa Pacifica and the former president there wrote his memoirs. During the same period Pat was the subject of Lester David’s The Lonely Lady of San Clemente (1978). The famous Frost/Nixon interviews were planned to be taped there but were moved due to radio interference. In 1980 the Nixon’s moved to Park Ridge, New Jersey but Nixon still has a special place in the hearts of many in San Clemente and there's even a Nixon Room downtown, which looked from the outside to be a sort of restaurant/museum/exhibition room. Meanwhile over at Casa Pacifica (4100 Calle Isabella) a guard and gates prevent visitors from finding out whether or not the private home has been preserved as a sort of '70s time capsule.

The exterior of the Nixon Room (note the chimney)


The Administration Building (1926), which originally served as Ole Hanson's offices

The Bartlett Building (1926), built for Edward Barlett, is the second oldest building in town

the Ann Harding House (1926), built for actress Ann Harding

418 Cazador Lane, built in 1926

Hotel San Clemente (1927) -- now apartments

The San Clemente Community Center, the Ole Hanson Room of which dates from 1927

Sea Cliff Villas (aka the Robison House), built in 1927 for Bertha and Emma Wierk

San Clemente was incorporated as a city on 27 February, 1928. A few months later, Tod Bates wrote a piece about the fledgling community titled “City of Spain Reproduced in Southern California” for an issue of Saturday Night, echoing the Times' amazement at the development.


The first San Clemente Pier was built in 1928 (it was rebuilt in 1939 and 1983). When we visited there was a clam chowder contest (part of Seafest, I think) underway. Unfortunately for many, the urge to gratingly attempt to yell in the non-rhotic New English dialect proved impossible to resist. The lines were really long -- as is the 365 meterlong pier. At the shore end is Fisherman's Restaurant but it also had lines out the door so we returned to the land.

Looking back at San Clemente from the pier


San Clemente’s first fire house and city jail were built in 1928 in what's now called Old City Plaza. An iron works and warehouse were added shortly after. Most of the plaza's municipal facilities relocated in 1962 although the building was still used as a maintenance yard until 1974. 

Historic City Yard Restaurant -- obscured by a windowless vehicle demanding that you "get stung"

Now the Old City Plaza is a quaint shopping center although both times I visited the jail house I found a heinous yellow vehicle parked in front -- apparently a TARDIS that blew its chameleon circuit in the totally eXtreme 1990s.


Ole Hanson Beach House (built in 1928)

The second story of the Ole Hanson Beach House

The San Clemente Inn (1928)

The Goldschmidt House (1928) designed by architect Paul R. Williams for Adlai Goldschmidt

Historic City Hall (aka the Easley Building), built in 1929 for Oscar Easley and never actually used as the City Hall

 the Easley Building/City Hall (1929)...

The Moulton House (1929), designed by Virgil Westbrook  for H.G. Moulton

The Swigart House, designed by Virgil Westbrook in 1929 for electrician Ralph Swigart

The Warner House, built in 1929 for Judge Warner -- founder of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce

St. Clement's By the Sea (1929)


The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression changed San Clemente’s course for ever. After 1931, the further development of subdivisions ceased. From 1930 to 1940 the population of San Clemente plummeted from 1,200 to just 479 people. Hanson himself lost his home in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles where he died of a heart attack in 1940. In 1937, in order to encourage new development, Bank of America successfully lobbied city officials to loosen its Spanish Colonial Revival restrictions to encourage growth.


Some of the first new buildings constructed in the late 1930s incorporated a mix of architectural styles. Architects like Aubrey St. Clair, E.A. Myhre, Fay R. Spangler, Herman Light, and William Ayer mixed Spanish Revival with Modernist elements as well as others to create a interesting hybrids. Still extant examples from this era include the Casino San Clemente (1937), the San Clemente Theatre (1937)...

The L.S. Frasier House, built in 1938 for Thomas Loncono

...and the Hollywood Regency-style Campbell House (1941) which proved too difficult to do justice to with my camera.


Construction of Casino San Clemente began in 1936 and was completed in 1937. Like Catalina Casino, it’s not a casino in the common gambling sense but rather in the antiquated sense of a sort of social gathering place.

Inside the Casino San Clemente

Early on, casino entertainment was provided by orchestras including Bert Smith and the NBC Orchestra, Dean Holt and his Trocadero Orchestra , and Sterling Young’s Columbia Network Orchestra.

The casino was a popular hangout for Hollywood stars such as Dorothy Lamour, Mickey Rooney, Pat O’Brien, Vivien Leigh, and others. One frequent guest, Judy Garland, took to the small stage and treated guests to a rendition of “I Cried for You” from Babes in Arms in 1939 (the event is one of many documented on wall displays in the venue). During World War II the casino was commandeered by the military who used it was a lookout station. In 1961 it became a Moose Lodge. From 1973 until 1980 it was home to Sebastian’s West Dinner Playhouse. In 1980, Southhampton Dinner Theatre took over. for a spell. In 1991 it became something called Cabos ‘n’ Wabos Caberet Cantina which sounds atrocious but still preferable to it being shuttered, which it was in 2004. Thankfully, in 2009 it was acquired by new owners who renovated it and re-opened it as an event space -- and one devoid of any suggestions of Sammy Hagar.


The 650-seat San Clemente Theatre was constructed next to the casino in 1937 and opened in 1938. It was designed by celebrated Clifford A. Balch, and also included a bowling alley and used to host live music performances. At some point it was renamed The Miramar Theatre. It was restored in 1986, closed in 1995, and placed on a list of the nation’s most endangered historic theatres in 2001. It currently it remains boarded up.


As mentioned previously, Casino San Clemente was occupied by the military when the US entered World War II in 1941. Not in San Clemente, but no doubt far more impactful on the community, was the establishment of a marine base just on the other side of the county line to the south. Camp Pendleton was established by president Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. Economically, it helped revive San Clemente, providing a large customer base who spread word of the quaint Spanish hamlet. The war ended in 1945 and many military families stayed in the area. In 1946, the base was declared a permanent installation and suburban development in San Clemente resumed for the first time since its cessation fifteen years earlier at the dawn of the Depression. 

The Beachcomber Hotel, established in 1947, and the city's longest continually-running business


By 1950 the population of San Clemente had once again climbed, reaching 2,000. That year and for the next three, the US fought in the Korean War and more military personnel were drawn to the nearby base and in many cases settled after war in San Clemente with their families. At the same time the Downtown business district experienced a new wave of commercial development along its core around Avenida Del Mar and El Camino Real.

San Clemente Chamber of Commerce

Freed of the Spanish Colonial Revival restrictions, architects turned to other styles and like Googie and Tiki. Two of the finest examples – both still existent – are Pedro’s Tacos and the Chamber of Commerce building. I’m not sure what occupied Pedro’s Tacos before they moved in and introduced Orange County to fish tacos in 1986 but my guess is that it was formerly a burger stand.


San Clemente’s population reached 8,500 in 1960 – the same year that the 5 Freeway reached town. The freeway’s construction came at a cost – the destruction of many of San Clemente’s older buildings. In that era of destruction and construction, the huge Shorecliffs development was San Clemente’s first big, modern housing tract, begun in 1963.


The SONGS, a cute acronmyn for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, was the world’s largest nuclear plant and was constructed just south of San Clemente. The first reactor began operation in 1968, four years after construction began. The second and third reactors followed in the 1980s. If you’ve driven this section of the five you probably know them as the “Giant Boobs" that serve as a gateway to San Diego County. In 2012, radioactive mist leaked from reactor three and nearby residents were issued iodine tablets. The rising water temperature and increased cloudiness around the reactor devastated the local marine ecosystem and a 150-acre kelp forest/artificial reef known as Wheeler North Reef was planted in 2008 to help mitigate the damage. The plant was shuttered in 2012 and the kelp on the artificial reef seems to be thriving although the population of marine fauna hasn't yet rebounded.


Before the 1960s, gangs seem to have been unknown in San Clemente. Back then San Clemente’s Varrio Chico (SCVC) gang and San Juan Capistrano’s Varrio Viejo were car clubs rather than gangs in the way that we think about them now. In the decades since they've evolved into street gangs and there are still unfortunate incidents of gang violence but the idea of anyone being afraid to visit San Clemente is ludicrous. 


Until 1972 the stunning Bartow Mansion stood as a symbol of San Clemente. Unfortunately, it was reduced to rubble by its final owners and replaced by an exceptionally hideous condominium. By then, roughly 500 of the old Spanish Colonial structures in the small city had been razed. The silver lining of the destruction was that it served as a catalyst for the organization of the San Clemente Historical Society in 1973. In 1999 the society received a grant to establish the San Clemente Historical Museum (although right now it's closed).


In 1974, Jay “Sparky” Longley founded Rainbow Sandals, which, in researching this piece I learned are "world famous." I'd never heard of them but then again, the only sandal brand that I'm familiar with is Germany's Birkenstock. I asked Una if she'd heard of them and she said that she hadn't. Then, after paying attention to the footware of people at her work, she told me that a patient had been wearing them. As we walked around San Clemente, she pointed out a group of people wearing them on the pier. 


 n 1975, a sex motel called Riviera Adult Motel opened in San Clemente. According to the OC Weekly it boasted theme rooms with large bathtubs and offered guests toys, complimentary adult movies and more. It seems as though it was demolished a few years ago. I doubt the Historical Society made saving it one of their causes. 


As with World War II and the Korean War, nearby Camp Pendleton trained thousands of marines that were sent off to fight in Vietnam. 50,418 refugees from Vietnam entered the US through the camp. 165 children were born there. Although presumably a significant number of Vietnam War veterans settled in San Clemente after the war, most of the Vietnamese settled further away in North Orange County (where they established Little Saigon) and the San Gabriel Valley's Far East Side.


By 1980, the population of San Clemente passed 27,000, 8% of whom were Latino. By 1990 that percentage had increased by 4% as the Anglo population decreased by the same. Some tensions arose, particularly between young men from both communities. High school Greaser vs Surfer rows go back at least to the 1950s. The most famous violent incident between young Latinos and Anglos occurred at Calafia Beach County Park in 1993, which ended in the death of 17-year-old Steven Woods. Like the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of 1942, it serves as a lightning rod for ethnic hostility, especially after the victim’s mother (a legal immigrant from the UK) blamed the violence on illegal immigrants. After throwing her weight behind Prop 187 -- which aimed to deny education, healthcare and social services to the undocumented -- it picked up considerable steam. Meanwhile anti-gang organizations formed, high school students staged a walkout, and a banner stating “Take Back our City” was hung from the 5 Freeway. Prop 187 passed with a large margin.




There are several train options to San Clemente: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink’s Orange County and IE/OC Lines. Metrolink began service in 1992 and yet I've still yet to ride one of their trains. Until the morning that we headed to San Clemente I had planned on us grabbing $10 weekend passes and taking the train to the pier station but it turned out that service was temporarily halted while crossing improvements were made and the closest that we could get via Metrolink was to Laguna Niguel.

Unable to get a picture of an OCTA bus, here's a green Studebaker that I liked 

From Laguna Niguel we could've taken advantage of Orange County's other great public transit service, OCTA, but that would've added another 80 minutes to the already long commute so we decided to drive this time. Orange County Transit Authority was formed the year before Metrolink when seven separated transit agencies combined forces. In 2005, OCTA was proclaimed "America's Best Public Transportation System" by the American Public Transportation Association. The organization serves Orange County with 77 bus lines, four of which (1, 91, 191, and 193) serve San Clemente. Not long ago, in 2011, San Clemente and OCTA made headlines when someone briefly stole one of their buses and abandoned it after an apparent joyride.

I mostly got around San Clemente on foot and found that it's not the most walkable city. Although most of the sites of interest to visitors are located within a small area that is fairly flat, it's iverall much hillier than I expected. Furthermore, sidewalks are quite rare and usually only exist in small, disconnected sections. Therefore, I did most of my walking in the street, something which local drivers seemed tolerant and respectful of -- probably because so many people do so. For the record, Walk Score gives the city a ranking of 47, on par with notoriously sprawling places like Phoenix and Dallas


Of course no visit to any destination is complete without sampling the local cuisine. San Clemente's main claim to culinary fame might be that it's home to a chain called Pick Up Stix Fresh Asian Flavors. In November is the Taste of San Clemente and many other events throughout the year involve food. The food scene of San Clemente, it has to be noted, isn’t the most diverse. The most numerous type of restaurants are American followed by Mexican, pizzerias, Italian, and burger joints.

We first ate, on recommendation, at one of the burger joints -- The Riders Club Café. There we enjoyed some rather messy (silverware recommended) sandwiches and beer. A lot of the dining options were too upscale for my taste and my favorite meal was a good, filling and very cheap dinner at La Tiendita, a Mexican restaurant and mini-market. Out of sheer desperation we ate at a noisy sports bar, Sunsets at the Pier, which was fine and afforded a lovely view of the ocean if also -- and expectedly -- sports blaring in every direction and boozy jocks grunting with excitement. Afterward I took off to explore more and Una went to the pier to eat a lobster at 26th Annual Seafest and reported that it was very good.

Other local food options include: Adele’s Café, Antoine’s Café, Avila’s El Ranchito, The Bagel Shack, Bamboo Bamboo’s Chinese Cuisine, Beach Garden Café, BeachFire, Biggie’s Burgers, Billys Meats Seafood and Deli, Board & Brew, Bread Gallery, Brick Pizzeria, Bud’s Famous Hot Dogs, Bull Taco, Buonos Pizza and Pasta, Burger Junkies, Burger Stop, Butterfly Orchid, Café 207, Café Calypso, Café del Sol, Café Mimosa, Café Rae, Calafia Beach Café, Captain Mauri’s Counterculture,

Carbonara Trattoria Italiana, China Well Restaurant, Chronic Tacos, Cinnamon Productions, Corky’s Family Restaurant, CourtsideDaphne’s California Greek, El Jefe Café, El Mariachi Restaurant, Fratello’s, Golden Chicken, The Grill at Surfin Donuts, Guicho’s Eatery, Hapa J’s, Hot Dog Heaven, Ichibiri Restaurant
, Inka Mama’s, Italian Cravings, Iva Lee’s, Izza Pizzeria, Kahuna’s Grill at North Beach, Kelly’s Donuts, The Kultured Kitchen, La Cocina de Ricardo, La Galette Creperie,

La Rocco’s Pizzeria, La Siesta Restaurant, Las Golodrinas Mexican Food, Little Thai Hut, Los Patios, Maxim Restaurant, Miyako, Mongkut Thai Restaurant, Mr. Pete’s Burgers, New Mandarin Garden, Nick’s San Clemente, 9 Style Sushi, Nobu Sushi
, Nomad’s Canteen, Olamendi’s Restaurant, Pacific Taste Restaurant, Pada Sushi at Albertson’s, Papa Murphy’s Take N Bake Pizza, Peppino’s Italian Family Restaurant, Pho Thanh Binh, Pier Shack & Grill, Pipes Café,  Pizza Port,  Poke + Roll 808,

Rice Temptation, Rocco’s Restaurant, Romano’s, Rose’s Sugar Shack Café, SC Café, Selma’s Chicago PizzeriaThe Shore, Signature Grille, Sonny’s Pizza and Pasta, South of Nick’s, Stillwater Café, Stuft Pizza & Brewing, Sundried Tomato Café, Sunrise Café, Super Bowl Express,
Super Suppers, The Surferosa Café, Surfin’ Chicken, Surfside Pizza, Sushi Sono, 

Taka-O Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, Taste of China, Tequila’s Chophouse, Thai Palace SC, Thai Paradise Restaurant, Tina and Vince Italian Deli, Tommy’s Family Restaurant & Coffee Shop, 2 For 1 Pizza Company, Two Guy’s Pizza, Village Mediterranean Rim
, and  Waba Grill Teriyaki House


Inside the Red Fox Lounge

Although the dining scene overall seems kind of fancy (a place with $35 entrees is listed as “$$” out of “$$$$” on Yelp), the drinking scene occupies a similar range. Bars include Big Helyn’s Saloon, Board & Brew, The Cellar, Chill Lounge Via Fontibre, Duke’s, Goodys Tavern, Molly Bloom’s Irish Bar and RestaurantMulligan’s Sports Bar, OC Tavern Grill & Sports Bar, Ole’s Tavern, Outrigger, Pride of the Pacific Bar & Grille, San Clemente Wine Company, St. Roy Chef’s Pub at Vine. If you prefer coffee, there's Zebra House Coffee. We checked out the Red Fox Lounge, one of the older bars in the city, having been established in 1955.


Walking around San Clemente I couldn’t find any dedicated music venues. Back in the day, in addition to the Casino, City Hall was home to the House of Music. On Yelp, places like Adele’s Café, Knuckleheads Sports Bar, OC Tavern Grill & Sports Bar are all listed as music venues although I’m not sure how accurate that is. The sign on Goody’s Tavern, established in 1929, promised live music, dancing, pool and other sinful activities but we didn’t venture inside to confirm. From May to August, since 1999, San Clemente has hosted the annual Summer Beach Concert Series

There was music everywhere, however and in the course of my walks I also heard music bouncing around the hills and canyons. There was pop-punk coming from somewhere near the pier at one point. A day earlier I could hear a band run through a medley of Bee Gees, Wild Cherry and other ‘70s tunes. As I walked down Avenida Del Mar, a man on the sidewalk plucked at his banjo. Floating from store, car and home windows (and jukeboxes) I heard Snoop Dogg, C.W. Mccall, death metal, Michael Jackson, Metallica (which Una asked me to stop singing along to), Willie Nelson, and more. I saw a Rasta hawking CDs of his reggae to a tie-dyed family whose patriarch gushed “I love Bob Marley” but passed on buying the disc. 

Probably the best known musician from San Clemente is Annie Hardy of Giant Drag, who if I'm not mistaken, was at one point something of a regular on Amoeba's mezzanine. Other local performers include Absynth & Orange, American Restless, Buddhafinger, Brewcifer, Clam, Collective (And the Influence of the Individual), CursorDavid Greenwood, Dr. Bob's Nightmare, Dubluva, Dustin Franks, Garrett Grimm, Grady Penna, Half Blonde, Maddie Miller, Man Flesh, Mario Di Sandro, Methadone Kitty and the Daily Dose, No More Saints, Phigure, Red Asphalt, The Red Kapps, The Resurrectionists, Rock Bottom, Scarletfields, Shit Wizard, Shtar, Skunkemusic, Sunday Night Drive, and Tony Milosevic.


Probably the best-known film that really made use of its San Clemente setting was Rian Johnson’s neo-noir film Brick (2005). Ron Howard’s Frost Nixon (2008) included some shots of San Clemente -- possibly of the Western White House (I didn't see it). Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge (1986) featured a scene filmed in San Clemente’s storied Wagon Wheel bar (now Mulligan’s). At least some scenes of Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and The Naked Gun (1988) were also filmed in San Clemente. On television San Clemente was featured in at least some episodes of Dynasty, Sports Talk, and Not Now John. San Clemente is the setting for an MTV show called Life of Ryan, although I don't believe that it's filmed there. San Clemente is also the birthplace of actress Cara Fawn (aka Cheyenne Silver).

After the old San Clemente Theatre was permanently shuttered in 1995, Krikorian San Clemente Cinema 6 opened in 1997 and is currently the only movie theater in town. San Clemente is also home to Inspirational Films, a production company that produces Christian-themed films. Their biggest hit to date was Jesus (1979), the three (!) directors of which were John HeymanJohn Krisch, and Peter Sykes (To the Devil... A Daughter, The House in Nightmare Park, Demons of the Mind).


Though not quite a South County art mecca on the same level as Laguna Beach, San Clemente is home to a vibrant and well-established art scene based around galleries, street art, surf boards, public art, tattoo parlors, &c.

Mint Fine Art Gallery 

The San Clemente Art Association first organized back in 1953 with seven members. They had their first show in 1954 and opened an art gallery in 1972. Nowadays they host eight art shows a year, including the August Art-Craft Fair in the third week of each August which has taken place since 1960. The city and the Art Association have paired together to turn traffic control boxes into art canvasses. The Village Art Faire takes place on the first Sunday of every month and Una and I checked it out as we made our way toward the sea. San Clemente is also home to a street artist who goes by Bandit. Bandit organized the first Public Art of San Clemente Art Show in 2012.

Art supply stores and galleries including Bamboo and Beyond, Gallery 104, GRC Ceramic Design, Ink Gallery, Jennifer Joyce Ceramic Arts, Kona Gallery and Photojournalism Center, Liquid Art Studio, Solitary Exposure Ocean Fine Art Gallery, and Studio Artique. We stayed near San Clemente Art Supply which offers classes. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the store, but in an alley nearby a garage has a mural celebrating the first half century of The Rolling Stones. A bit further up the road I snapped a picture of the Mint Fine Art Gallery and met the owner as he was leaving.


Surfing has been popular in San Clemente at least since the 1930s and really took off in the 1950s. Popular surfing areas include the Trestles (mentioned by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ USA”), the Lowers, the Middles, the Uppers, the Riviera, Lost Winds, the Hole, T-Street, the Pier, Linda Lane, 204, North Beach, Calafia, and Poche Beach.

There are several surf-centric shops and manufactures like Cole Surfboards, Dewey Weber Surfboards, Lost Surfboards, San Clemente Surf Company, Son of the Sea, Stewart Surfboards, Terry Senate Surfboards, and Timmy Patterson Surfboards. There’s also an annual San Clemente Celebration of Surf Music and Art Festival. For more than 20 years, San Clemente has also annually hosted the largest Woody exhibition in California.

They used to show surf films at the Miramar and surf films and series like Innovators (2005), School of Surf (2009), Farmer’s Tan (2010), and BoardRoom (2012) were filmed in San Clemente. San Clemente is also home to the Surfing Heritage Foundation and the Surfrider Foundation. The publications Longboard Magazine, Surfer’s Journal, and Surfing Magazine are (or were) all based in San Clemente.


Max Berg Plaza Park

San Clemente is home to a number of beaches, parks and hiking trails. The oldest beach is San Clemente State Beach, established in 1937 and home to the Historic San Clemente Cottage.

San Clemente Historic Cottage 

Inside the historic cottage

Other parks include Bonita Canyon Park, Calafia Park, Forster Ranch Community Park, La Pata Vista Hermosa Sports Park, Leslie Park, Liberty Park, Linda Lane Park, Marblehead Park, Max Berg Plaza Park, Parque del Mar, Rancho San Clemente Park, San Clemente Dog Park, San Gorgonio Park, San Luis Rey Park, Sunset Park, Verde Park, and part of Rancho Mission Viejo Ecologia (part is within San Diego County).

Most of the hiking trails are in the semi-arid, rather forebodingly tree-less (and therefore shade-less) foothills. They include the the 8km Prima Derecha Trail, 6.75 km Forster Ridgeline Trail, 5.5 km Cristianitos Trial, the 5.5 km Rancho San Clemente Trail, and the 4.5 kilometer Talega Trail. Nearer the coast there’s the 5km San Clemente Pedestrian Trail.


There are, of course, other things to do when in San Clemente.

Cabrillo Playhouse (1953)

As a fan of live theater, I was pleased to stumble upon the Cabrillo Playhouse, established in 1953 and home to the San Clemente Community Theatre. Every August for the last 60 years the Annual San Clemente Fiesta Street Festival has taken place and offers attendees bands, beer, games, arts and crafts, car and motorcycle shows, and a salsa challenge. There’s also the Rancho San Clemente Tennis & Fitness Club. The family-oriented Ocean Festival has taken place annually since 1977. On the 13th of October is the Carnival Colossal & Expo

More entertainment options: parking lot grill-outs and laundromat arcade games

For golfers, there are a few options. In addition to the Bella Collina Towne & Golf Club and Shorecliffs Golf Club, there’s the San Clemente Golf Club. The San Clemente Municipal Golf Course was designed in 1928 by the renowned golf course architect William P. Bell, initially as a nine hole course. It was touted as the only all-grass course between Long Beach and La Jolla. Nine more holes were added in 1956. Sadly, the elegant clubhouse was destroyed to make way for an apartment complex.


In addition to the aforementioned San Clemente Historical Society, San Clemente is home to the San Clemente Junior Women's Club and San Clemente Women’s Club (established in 1948), Kiwanis Club of San Clemente, San Clemente Rotary Club, San Clemente - Capistrano Bay Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the San Clemente Friends of the Library, among other organizations.


There are several bookstores in San Clemente including Joy’s Christian Bookstore, Mathom House Books, and Village Book Exchange. Additionally, there's the San Clemente Library

If you’d like to read more about San Clemente there have been several newspapers including the first, El Heraldo de San Clemente and currently the San Clemente Times, the Orange County Register's Sun Post News, and the online San Clemente Patch.

There are also books worth checking out such as Homer Banks’s The Story of San Clemente: The Spanish Village (1930), Lloyd Hanson’s Inside the Casa, Elizabeth Mcmillian and Melba Levick’s Casa California: Spanish-Style Houses from Santa Barbara to San Clemente (1996), Doris Walker’s The Heritage of San Clemente (2000), Mike Newel’s San Clemente California Spanish Village by the Sea (2009), and Jennifer A. Garey and The San Clemente Historical Society’s San Clemente (2010). There’s also a children’s book from 1973, Blythe Welton and Mary Lou Nicolai’s From Fishcarts to Fiestas.

And if you want, check out Lucas “Toddler Boy” of “Look Who’s Traveling” (who beat me to San Clemente by a week or so!) by watching the clip below:


To vote vote for other Orange County communities, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, vote here. Please leave any additions, corrections, or shared memories in the comment section. Aloha!


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California Fool's Gold -- A South County Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 31, 2013 04:44pm | Post a Comment

Most of us know the stereotypes and are familiar with the frequent characterizations of Orange County. It’s supposedly culture-less and even somehow history-less. Anyone who’s spent any time in Los Angeles has no doubt heard the same hollow, bafflingly ignorant observations made of about that richly cultured city yet sadly, many Angelenos (who ought to no better) still nevertheless cling to the dated, and increasingly disconnected stereotypes about their neighbors to the south.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of South Orange County

Of course anyone who’s spent any time in Orange County knows that the popular images of that County have as little in common with reality as the prevailing stereotypes of Los Angeles do. I'll acknowledge that there’s a degree of truth to some of them but as Orange County grows more urban, more diverse, more liberal, and more interesting, spreading them reveals more about the vastness of the spreader's ignorance than their insight or knowledge about the subject.

As of 2012 roughly 31% of Orange Countians were registered Democrats whereas 42% were registered Republicans so neither corporate political party can claim the majority (for now although the percentage of the former grows whilst the latter declines). Of all Orange Countians, 45% speak a language other than English at home. With a population that is 44% white*, 34% Latino**, 18% Asian, 2% black, and 1% Native American, there is no racial or ethnic majority. Forbes magazine recently placed Orange County above Los Angeles County in its list of the most diverse communities. Orange also has the third largest county population in California, just behind that of San Diego. But Orange’s population density is contained much higher. 1,472.3/km2 versus San Diego’s is 260/km2,making it more than five times as dense as the second biggest county in the state and therefore hardly a big, sleepy suburb.

I suspect that part of the Orange County's continuing image problem stems from the fact that whereas Los Angeles has an army of intelligent, informed academic, intellectual, and literary boosters, many of Orange County’s enthusiasts are rather less convincing. In my view, The OC Weekly is now superior to the LA Weekly in almost every regard. However, when it comes to their annual "Best of Orange County" lists, a disproportionate amount of winners are puzzlingly in Long Beach – the bustling Los Angeles County (not Orange) Medina to Los Angeles’s Mecca. Saying that the best things about one's county are located outside of it isn't exactly a ringing endorsement and seems to betray a disappointing sense of inferiority. I, for one, would love to see a "best of" list that only includes Orange County. 


In my North Orange County primer I pointed out that Orange County that North Orange County is home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam as well as home to the vibrant ethnic enclaves of Little Saigon, Little Arabia, and Little Seoul. Most of the great Italo and Euro Disco performers (and their fans) bypass Los Angeles to play and dance in venues like Avec Nightclub, Bleu, the Observatory, and Shark Club. There’s lots of great architecture – the City of Orange includes three Eichler Tracts (three times as many as are located in Los Angeles) in addition to its many, lovely Craftsman homes. Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts is a major hub of high culture. It’s also, of course, home to the popular Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm theme parks.

“What about South County?” you may well be asking at this point. Well, admittedly I know a lot less about South County than North (and still have loads to experience in the North). There certainly seem to quite a few more (frequently gated) master-planned communities in South County than in North County. Many of the towns seem only to have incorporated in the last couple of decades -- although their histories could be said to begin with the earliest human habitation thousands of years ago.

Even within clusters of red tile uniformity there are surprises and delights, sometimes all the more enjoyable because they're unexpected. Exploring Tustin I was surprised to find two enormous World War II era blimp hangars – two of the largest freestanding wooden structures on the planet -- and a surrounding, abandoned military base. Irvine’s prescribed and managed normalcy is clearly the work of a unique brand of madness that I enjoyed trying to wrap my head around. And most recently I rediscovered Laguna Beach -- a left-leaning arts colony full of rich hippies and gays (as well as stunning natural scenery). So to encourage more votes (and therefore more explorations by me of South County), here’s a primer to introduce you to the essentials about the region’s communities to entice you to vote.


The great Missourian Mark Twain famously said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” He was right, of course, and I suggest that anyone eager to characterize Orange County explore it first -- preferably on foot. The worst way to see Orange County is probably from a car speeding down the freeway, which will limit one's experience to views of architecturally impressive freeway interchanges, freeway walls, and tree tops. If you're not up for walking or biking, there are also several public rail options including Metrolink'91Orange County, and Inland Empire/Orange County lines. It's also traversed by Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner. The dominant bus system is the OCTA (Orange County Transit Authority), the 78 lines of which access every city in the county. Smaller bus lines include Irvine's iShuttle and Laguna Beach Transit. If you're taking a boat from Catalina Island, you can take a Catalina Express boat.


Of all communities in the South County, right now Balboa Island (in Newport Beach) and San Clemente in are tied for second place and representing South County. To vote vote for Orange County neighborhoods and communities, vote here. To vote for other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, vote here.  



For thousands of years before the Spanish Conquest, what’s now South Orange County was home to the Acagchemem nation. All of California was claimed for Spain in 1769 and the conquerors called the indigenous people Juaneños. In 1822, what's now South County became part of the newly-independent country of Mexico. Orange County remained part of Mexico until 1848, when the US defeated Mexico in war. In 1850, when California became a state, what’s now Orange County was made part of Los Angeles County. Orange County remained part of the County of Los Angeles for almost half a century, until 11 March, 1889 when Orange County seceded.

In 1900 there were still fewer than 20,000 residents spread across the then-new, mostly agricultural county. The 1920s saw significant growth and the region’s population first surpassed 100,000. In the 1950s and ‘60s Orange County grew incredibly quickly. Since then, every decade has seen further growth although most of the stereotypes seem to be trapped in this era from half a century ago. The South County region is bordered by Riverside County to the northeast, San Diego County to the southwest, North Orange County to the northwest, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. And now for the communities... 



City of Aliso Viejo Theatre Complex

Aliso Viejo had been an unincorporated community since around 1990, and incorporated as a city in 2001, making it the newest city in the county. As of 2010 the demographic breakdown was roughly 62% white, 20% Asian, 17% Latino, and 2% black. Its primary attractions are the Aliso Viejo Town Center and Renaissance ClubSport. In 2006 the community gained widespread attention when the principal of Aliso Niguel High School banned school dances in a Footloose-like situation covered by the BBC and Geraldo at Large.


Image source: At Home in Coto

Coto de Caza is a guard-gated community founded in 1968, one of Orange County's oldest and most expensive master-planned communities. As of 2010 the population was 82% white, 8% Latino, 6% Asian, and 1% black. Coto de Caza (meaning "game preserve") was envisioned as a hunting lodge. It’s currently home to two eighteen-hole golf courses and two clubhouses as well as the Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park.


Dana Point harbor as seen from the end of Blue Lantern St.

Dana Point is named after the headland of Dana Point, a popular port for ships involved with the hide trade with nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was in turn named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast. The harbor contains a replica of his ship, The Pilgrim. The hide trade reached its peak in the 1830s and 1840s and nowadays people are more likely to visit to attend the Festival of Whales, which has taken place annually since 1972. The Tall Ships Festival is also held annually, in September. The population is roughly 76% white, 17% Latino of any race, 3% Asian, and 1% black.


Irvine Business Complex (image source: Irvine Chamber)

Irvine is a master planned community mostly developed by the Irvine Company after the 1960s. It incorporated as a city in 1971. The layout was designed by the great architect William Pereira and Irvine Company employee Raymond Watson and is nominally divided into housing developments euphemistically referred to as townships. Although one of the safest cities in the country, it’s also one of the most disparaged for its sterile and managed Utopian aspirations. To read more about Irvine, click here.


Ladera Ranch (image source: DMB)

Ladera Ranch is a planned, unincorporated master-planned community. Construction of the community began in 1999 on portions of the Rancho Mission Viejo cattle ranch, at that time the largest remaining working ranch in Orange County. Like Irvine it consists of neighborhood "villages" includingOak Knoll Village, Bridgepark, Flintridge Village, Township, Wycliffe Village, Echo Ridge Village, Avendale Village, Terramor Village, and Covenant Hills Village. As of 2010 the population was 69% white, 13% Latino of any race, 12% Asian, and 2% black. 


View from Crescent Bay Point Park

Laguna Beach is a quirky, affluent community in South Orange County. It is widely known for its vibrant arts scene and environmental treasures. It has far more registered Democrats than Republicans and is home to an well-established gay scene. It's quite possibly the most beautiful spot in the county. To read more about it, click here.


Taj Mahal Medical Center

Laguna Hills incorporated in 1991. It annexed North Laguna Hills in 1996 and the Westside Annex (including Sheep Hills Park) in 2000. For several decades before incorporation the Taj Mahal Medical Center has been a local landmark (since 1964). As of 2010 the population was 73% white, 21% Latino of any race, 13% Asian, and 1% black.


The Chet Holifield Federal Building 

Laguna Niguel is a master planned community. In 1959, Boston’s Cabot, Cabot & ForbesLaguna Niguel Corporation established Laguna Niguel one of the first master planned communities in California. In 1973, Laguna Niguel Regional Park opened. A one-million square-foot ziggurat built for Rockwell International and designed by William Pereira was featured in the films Death Race 2000 (1975), Deal of the Century (1983), and Outbreak (1995). The city incorporated in 1989. As of 2010 its population was 73% white, 14% Latino of any race, 9% Asian, and 1% black.


Laguna Woods 76 - 1966

About 90% of the city of Laguna Woods consists of Laguna Woods Village, a retirement community formerly known as Leisure World. Construction of Leisure World began in 1963. The city’s median population is 78 years old. The city of Laguna Woods incorporated in 1999. As of 2010 the population was 84% white, 10% Asian, 4% Latino, and 1% black.


Serrano Adobe - Lake Forest

Lake Forest grew out of the community of El Toro, which was established in the 1880s. It’s named after two artificial, condo-lined lakes. Lake Forest incorporated as a city in 1991. Since incorporation, Lake Forest has expanded its limits to include the communities of Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills, two master planned developments. One of its parks, Heritage Hill, is home to some of the oldest buildings in the county including the Serrano Adobe, the old El Toro School House, and St. Georges Episcopal Church. As of 2010 the population was 57% white, 25% Latino, 13% Asian, 2% black, and 1% Native American.


Las Flores (image source: OC Real Estate Voice)

Las Flores is a small, unincorporated community with a population that in 2010 was about 65% white, 17% Latino, 13% Asian, and 2% black. It’s home to the Rancho Santa Margarita dog/skate park and Cosmo's Italian Kitchen.


Mission Viejo Lake (image source: Kelly Law Office)

Mission Viejo is located in Orange County’s Saddleback Valley, and was developed by Donald Bren, current president of the Irvine Company. The master-planned community is the second largest in the country, exceeded in size only by Highlands Ranch, Colorado. By several measures it’s one of the safest communities of its size in the country. It was for much of its existence undeveloped grazing land. The population as of 2010 was roughly 69% white, 17% Latino, 9% Asian, and 1% black. In entertainment it was the birthplace of actor/musician Noah Munck , actor/writer/producer David Henrie, actor Kristy Swanson, and drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N' Roses, The Cultand Velvet Revolver).


Madame Modjeska in the garden of "Arden"

Modjeska Canyon is an unincorporated suburban community on the western slope of the Santa Ana Mountains. Most of the canyon is bordered by the Cleveland National Forest and it’s home of the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. Modjeska is named after Polish stage actress Helena Modjeska, who between 1888 and 1906, made her home, "Arden" (now a National Historic Landmark) there. Later, in 1966, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love was incorporated in Modjeska before moving to Laguna Beach.


Newport Beach Skyline at Night  (image source: Fine Art America)

Newport Beach began after Captain Samuel S. Dunnells defied naysayers by successfully navigating a 105-ton steamer named The Vaquero into a then-unnamed harbor. This prompted San Franciscan Robert Irvine to buy a large ranch that included the port. Newport Beach incorporated in 1906, a year after the Pacific Electric Railway arrived from Los Angeles making it the oldest city in South County. In 1923 it annexed Corona del Mar. In 2002 it annexed Newport Coast (which has Orange County's highest per capita income), East Santa Ana Heights, and San Joaquin Hills. In 2008 it annexed annexed West Santa Ana Heights. Completed in 1970, Newport Beach’s 17-story 620 Tower is the oldest skyscraper in Orange County. The population today is roughly 82% white, 7% Latino, 7% Asian, and 1% black. The TV show The OC was set in Newport Beach (although mostly filmed in Los Angeles's South Bay). On the other hand, much of Arrested Development was actually filmed there.


Cowan Heights in North Tustin (image source: Jansen Team)

Unincorporated North Tustin is Orange County’s largest Census Designated Place (CDP). Its population is roughly 75% white, 13% Latino, 8% Asian, and 1% black. Communities within the North Tustin CDP also include Cowan Heights, East Tustin, Lemon Heights, Panorama Heights, and Red Hill.


Rancho Santa Margarita (image source: OC Book)

Rancho Santa Margarita is a master planned community named after Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, in San Diego County. The city is located on lands formerly owned (along with Rancho Trabuco and Rancho Mission Viejo) by James L. Flood and his partner Jerome O’Neill, who purchased the ranchos in 1882. Despite its relatively long history, it only incorporated as a city in 2000, at which point it took the “Longest City Name in California” title from La Cañada Flintridge in the Verdugos. The population today is roughly 67% white, 19% Latino, 9% Asian, and 2% black. Supposedly it is the most frequent filming location for a television series titled The Real Housewives of Orange County.


San Clemente in the 1950s

San Clemente is the most southern city in Orange County, located more than 200 kilometers from the furthest reaches of Northwest Los Angeles County, and is considerably closer to San Diego. It’s named after San Clemente Island, one of the California Channel Islands. It is mostly the result of the vision of Ole Hanson, a former Seattle mayor who purchased 8.1 km2 which he wanted to resemble a Spanish resort town. Indeed, its slogan is “Spanish Village by the Sea.” It was the setting of the film Brick (2005) and the MTV series, Life of Ryan. It’s also the birthplace of actress Clara Fawn (aka Cheyenne Silver) and musician Annie Hardy (Giant Drag). The population is roughly 76% white, 17% Latino, 4% Asian, 1% black, and 1% Native American. To read more about it, click here.


Mission San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano is centered around Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776. As with San Clemente, many of the strip malls and homes are built in the Spanish revival style. It was until recently the famed, springtime home of an iconic population of American Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) that wintered in Goya, Argentina. Leon René’s song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” was recorded by The Ink Spots, Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, The Five Satins, and Pat Boone.


Cook's Corner in Santiago Canyon (image source: The Hamblogger)

Santiago Canyon
is an unincorporated community in Silverado between Trabuco and Modjeska Canyons. Within it are the smaller developments of Santiago Canyon Estates and the Falcon View Estates as well as Cook's Corner, a biker bar built in 1884.


Silverado, California (image source: Captured By Mark)

Unincorporated Silverado was founded in 1878, at the edge of Cleveland National Forest. As its name suggests, it was located near several silver mines. In the 1940s it became a popular vacation retreat for the area’s hot springs. 


Trabuco Canyon (image source: Shawn Barry)

Unincorporated Trabuco Canyon is a small community located in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains and partly within the Cleveland National Forest. "Trabuco” is Spanish for “blunderbuss.” Legend has it that it’s named after one such firearm that was lost in the canyon by one of Gaspar de Portolà’s expedition’s party in 1769.


Tustin blimp hangars

Tustin includes the neighborhoods of Old Town, planned community Tustin Legacy, and upscale, golf-centric Tustin Ranch. Tustin’s Old Town arose in the 1880s and still contains several buildings from the era as well as some lovely Victorian and Craftsman homes nearby. One well-known house, The Rock House, was built in 1950 by a civil engineer who collected the rocks on various job sites in the Rocky Mountains. The most impressive structures, however, are the aforementioned 29,000 square meter, 59 meter high blimp hangars which were used as Starfleet’s Hangar 1 in Star Trek (2009). To read more about Tustin, click here.

*For the purpose of this blog entry, “white” refers to non-Latino whites only
** For the purpose of this blog entry, “Latino” refers to Latinos of any race and ethnicity


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