Monday, August 30, 2010
Recently, I did something that I can’t say I had ever done before: visit Orange County with the explicit purpose of photographing it. With my friend John, an LA architecture aficionado, and architect himself, I spent a good day exploring the parts of Orange County most people do not see when cruising at 65mph en-route to Disneyland. While we covered a lot of ground, of particular interest to me (and my camera) were several of the county’s 100+-year old Craftsman and Victorian bungalow neighborhoods, along with the relatively intact old-timey Downtowns, found in Fullerton, Orange and Santa Ana.
All pleasant surprises, too! While they still are very much a part of Orange County, culturally speaking – except for Santa Ana, with its 260,000-strong, 80% Hispanic supermajority that is more akin to Texas border towns – the difference is in their appearance and architectural vernacular. Compared to the vast portions of the county dotted with gated suburban communities, and tasteless McMansions, seeing these places, with their century-old, walkable neighborhoods, was an eye-opener, and actually made me want to take pictures.
We started off in the parking lot of Fullerton’s small-ish Metrolink commuter rail station, and from there we would explore not only the station itself, but the surrounding Town Center, of which the station anchors the southern tip of. The area, with its 1-story brick buildings and potted plant medians, was good enough, although not very special compared to regional peers. As a whole, the scale and feel of the area reminded me of Whittier’s Uptown (an area I also hope to photograph soon), sans people.
Shortly after that, we set off for Orange, but not before a Modernist church and Art-Deco high school caught my attention. Which, speaking of Art-Deco high schools – it’s almost as if you can’t be a stereotypical small town without having one (not saying Anaheim is a small town). What really caught my eye, though, was an absolutely imposing church, done in a true Mid-Century Modern style, complete with an equally awesome typeface. Not much time spent here, though.
Having bigger priorities, it was then to Orange, precisely the established nabes ringing the Downtown. To me, Orange was the highlight of the trip. The concentration of historic architecture seemed to be the highest in Orange and the homes themselves all seemed to be well-looked after and tended to. It almost reminded me if one of LA’s Craftsman-heavy nabes magically had their graffiti, insensitive windows modifications, overgrown front lawns, and disharmonious “renovations” removed. As a result, and being somewhat accustomed to rundown homes, it took some getting used to seeing so many in such good shape. And not that LA feels dangerous or anything (for the most part), but there is a certain safe, cozy feeling in much of Orange. It’s as if NOTHING can or will happen to you; an almost eerie feeling, really.
Orange’s Old Towne, on the other hand, walking there, amongst numerous 1800s buildings, once could easily mistake themselves for being in a Northern California Gold Rush town, or with its cliché Main Street, your typical Midwest small town. Its decidedly non-LA look has meant that the location has subbed in for many a small, Americana town on the silver screen, including, most notably, Forrest Gump. Nearby Neo-classical Chapman College, a well-distinguished film (among other studies) school, was another architectural gem that defies the popular notion that Orange County is all tasteless suburban tract homes. The surrounding area was not bad, either: a student ghetto filled with converted Victorian houses.
This trip opened my eyes, and showed me that LA’s suburban brother isn’t just a never-ending labyrinth of poorly constructed, McMansion-filled suburbs, full of stereotypical tanned blondes and coastal surfer “bro” types. Although many parts of the OC are just that – bland, superficial and utterly devoid of interest or history – others are more in line with Los Angeles and other big cities nationwide: living and breathing places that are constantly changing and adapting to whatever the present may put forth. And in the case of Santa Ana and Irvine: destinations for new immigrants -- something reflected in the decline of the region’s Republican voting base, now a record-low 43% percent. The whites most often associated with the area are becoming more and more a thing of the past, too: Whites are 45% of the population (and falling); some 45% of the area speaks a foreign language at home.