Tom Zoellner
Elaine Lewinnek

Editor’s Note: This Boom conversation brings together an English literature scholar and an urbanist American Studies professor to reflect on Orange County’s role in the California imaginary. Beginning with reflections on literature and geography, the particular and surprising stories come to life within the diverse landscape that breaks through the common clichés of one of the Golden State’s most important places defining both California’s present and future.

Orange County and the Written Word (Tom Zoellner)

I teach a class at Chapman University on the literature of Orange County that covers the historic poems, stories, and nonfiction portraits, which give this newish megalopolis a sense of place and continuity. Since the class is listed as a creative writing class, I also ask undergraduate students to write their own interpretations of what they see around them.

“Uniformity” is a constant theme: the perceived sameness of the physical landscape, as well as the nagging sense that the region—despite its documented levels of racial and economic diversity—works too hard to promote the image of a palm-sculpted and surgically-aided paradise for affluent Anglos, reminiscent of the “California dream” marketed nationwide in the 1950s.

But just as often, students write about themes of “uncertainty” when it comes to Orange County—a sense of bewilderment about what the region is supposed to mean for them as either a temporary address for their education or as a possible place to start a career, a family, and a meaningful life. For young adults about to join what sociologist Richard Florida described as the “creative class,” the tract-home-and-freeway vocabulary of Orange County does not immediately seem to offer the accouterments that have attracted artists, actors, designers, and small business entrepreneurs to cities with more dense clusters of older architecture and walkable public spaces with interesting street-level retail. One of my students described the county as a “string of contradictions” as puzzling as the interconnected and similar looking municipal groupings that were, as he put it, “moonlighting” as a real city.

The syntax of our built environment, which tended to fall on the geometry of square-mile farm roads and fallen orchard subdivisions, is attractive to retired couples and young families, and generally not those who hunger for unorthodox methods of expression.

One recent set of events here in the City of Orange is illustrative of how geography and culture conspire against the forces that make places interesting. Weary of loud parties and of historic homes chopped up into multi-unit dwellings, the city council made it easier to police to levy stiff fines for both: an action that many perceived as taking direct aim at Chapman’s student culture and of Old Town Orange for welcoming anybody but established families of high income.

When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool

“This is a conservative town,” Mayor Tita Smith said when the ordinance passed, and she meant that descriptor to go beyond the usual binary political definition. Orange was a place that embraced the status quo, resisted the influx of young people, preserved existing neighborhoods to the point of inaccessibility and stagnation and clung to its identity as a nineteenth century railroad village surrounded by a postwar ranch-house grid spread out in all other directions.

This may not be a formula to build cultural capital in the twenty-first century. Orange County’s cities risk the impression of tastelessness—in the bland sense, not the rude sense—if they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of freezing the 1950s or the 1980s in a snow globe. Demographers believe that half of the county’s millennials do not plan to stay here beyond their early adulthoods, mainly because of the lack of quality affordable housing and the flight of jobs from the high-technology sector. When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool.

The high housing costs not tethered to an “interesting” local narrative is a deadening factor when it comes to recruiting new companies that bring in creative workers, as well as artistic entrepreneurs looking for funky cheap spaces. Economic data from this university’s former president Jim Doti, also a distinguished economist, indicates that Orange County lost 16.3 percent of its high-tech jobs since the beginning of a 2008 recession. This happened even as the region suffered a decline in the growth of its population with university degrees. A report called, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future” from Chapman’s Center for Demographics & Policy ends on a note that would sound at home in a Dickens novel, predicting the current economic winds might leave the county “like some aging but still attractive dowager, into long-term stagnation and eventual decline.”[1]

Economic lassitude, and a lock on the door to the fresh and the cool, can create a cultural lacuna. In the opinion of Marshall Toplansky and Joel Kotkin, the authors of the OC Model report, the traditional prescriptions of New Urbanists—spending big money on mass transit, dense apartment blocks and walkable downtowns—may have some beneficial effects on legacy cities with nineteenth century street patterns, but would have little salvific effect on a multi-polar geography like Orange County. Competitive comparable cities with a strong local narrative and recognizable iconography—Boulder, Austin, Raleigh, even Detroit—at least have a “sense of place” that invites new residents to participate. Orange County has an obvious and immortal beach culture as an attractive signifier. But is there anything else here that tells us who we are?


Countering the oncoming cultural malaise may not require building something new, in the way that “The Block at Orange” or “Downtown Orange County” were physical attempts at slapping a band-aid on our self-inflicted wound. When it comes to literature, the point is to engage in a rediscovery process of what already exists—“shopping your own closet,” to borrow a retail clothing term. Because despite the perception of a bland homescape free of any history except Mission Revival architecture and a railroad, Orange County has a robust literary tradition that remains all-too underappreciated.

The textbook in my Southern California literature class has the title, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, which some might consider a joke if they look only at the surface. But there is a rich sense of literary place and continuity here that may elude the casual observer. Literature can provide both a portal and a foundation for uncracking the seeming randomness of where we happen to have taken a new job, or bought real estate, or moved to retire in the sunshine, or even have been fated to be born.

This anthology—published last year by Berkeley’s Heyday Books—was edited by the married couple Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich is a much-needed statement that Orange County has an intricate soul and that beauty can be found in its unexpected places. Some of the literature within functions as a retort and a rebuke to those would write off Orange County too quickly as a place too new to have an indigenous literary tradition, or even anything worth writing poetry about. In fact, the utilitarian core of the county’s visual aesthetic is a rich vein to be mined. Just as Edward Hopper tapped into to the darkness on the margin of cities as a powerful animating force in his paintings, Orange County writers make ample use of the plainspoken California sunshine and repetitive housing vocabulary as a source of narrative energy in their writings.

The poet Grant Hier, whose poem “Untended Garden” is included in the anthology, writes of running down a concrete-clad river, its walls “rising on either side like wings.” The author Victoria Patterson—who spent a turbulent adolescence in Newport Beach—uses the Fashion Island shopping mall like Charles Dickens used London: it is a spiritual center and locus of action for her novel, This Vacant Paradise. In the Orange County anthology, she writes of the San Onofre nuclear plant (now decommissioned but still an inescapable sight for anyone driving The 5 down to San Diego). Patterson writes of the “breast-like” domes covered in bird dung “like frosting on cupcakes”—a startling image. “At the tip of each dome,” she writes, “there was a red light blinking slowly—like the bell buoys—not in unison, and never completely off: barely red, and then all lit up red.”

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment.

Another unexpected lovely set of images appears in the poem “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts” by Aracelis Girmay. “Santa Ana of AquaNet,” she writes, “altars, the glitter & shine of 99 cent stores, taco trocas, churches, of bells, hallelujahs & center fields, aprons, of winds, collard greens, & lemon cake  in Ms. Davenport’s kitchen, sweat, sweat over the stove.” This takes the banal and forces it into fresh new light.

I was asked to contribute an essay to this anthology and chose to focus on a subject that I wanted to learn more about—the influence of the citrus business in shaping the enduring culture of Orange County, even though the orange orchards are long gone. As a result of reading old newspaper clippings and the reminiscences of the old fruit-packing lords, I now see the physical environment differently and perceive the lurking ghosts of the megaranch archipelago that we used to be.

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment. We “make” the places where we live based on a sense of history and narrative, both of which can be supplied by the animating force of literature. In the concluding lines of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, the social critic James Howard Kunstler writes that we are all on a lifelong journey towards an unknown destination and that along the way, we yearn to experience an environment that means something and has intrinsic significance[2]. He was speaking about the need to enrich public spaces, but the exhortation also applies to the interior life of the mind, which experiences the world as an unfolding story. Lifting up an Orange County literary tradition and a habit of “belonging through words” is not necessarily going to summon high-wage jobs or instantaneous high culture. But we can mine the record for old words, and create new words, which gives some distinction and texture to the streetscape. We have more than we know.

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The Orange Holy Land
[3] (Elaine Lewinnek)

It is worth remembering that Orange County’s residents are not just the folks who want manicured suburban lawns, but also those who want to work as landscapers of those lawns. People come here from across the Pacific Rim and beyond the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, filling Orange County with the diversity that makes it interesting and with the workers that make it possible. As Tom Zoellner pointed out, this county flourished during the Cold War because of military-industrial jobs but also international refugees. Now that the Cold War has ended and some of those military-industrial and high-tech jobs have evaporated, I believe there is still a strong economy, including banking and mortgage-lending, real-estate development, higher education, service-workers in the tourist economy, and vibrant religions.

Although Tom’s students perceive the risk of tastelessness in this expensive yet uncool space, I wonder whether Orange County cares about their departures. For every “creative class” person who finds this space unhip, others keep pouring in. Property-values do not suffer here; I am not sure this space is declining. There is, in fact, now an “Orange County” gated community outside of Beijing and another “Orange County” pair of luxury resorts in India: our reputation as a name brand is that appealing, transnationally.

Some of my students do share Tom Zoellner’s disappointment in the lack of public space and paucity of community here. Yet, maybe because I’m in an American Studies department and not an English department, my students look for more than literature to anchor themselves here. For them, family stories, subgroup’s stories, and cultural history stories help provide a sense of place. Let me mention a few of my favorite Orange County stories that I have discovered while conducting research for the forthcoming, A People’s Guide to Orange County.

If you are black in Orange County, there are very few places you can get your hair done. The Cut & Curl at 4th and Bristol Streets in Santa Ana was one of those places. In the early 1960s, Dorothey Mulkey was getting her hair done and chatting about the challenge she faced finding a decent apartment to rent. The hairdressing customer next to her happened to work for the NAACP, and encouraged Mulkey to bring her case to court. In 1967, in Reitman v Mulkey, California’s supreme court overturned Proposition 14, California’s anti-fair-housing bill, the first time the supreme court had overturned a voter-approved initiative. It is the basis for our fair housing laws today—and it is thanks to one Navy veteran, Dorothey Mulkey, and one conversation at a Santa Ana barbershop.[4] Stories like that are worth remembering.

It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know.

It is too easy to drive past the parking lot of the former Hunt/ConAgra/Val Vita packing factory without knowing that in 1943 the Latina women who worked there successfully fought for onsite childcare because before that time they had to lock their children in their cars during their 8-hour shifts. Knowing that story, a vacant parking lot suddenly has resonant depth.

Orange County has also led the way in privatization. We have the first modern gated community in Rossmoor, Seal Beach; first age-segregated community in Leisure World; first modern Home Owners Association in Huntington Beach (quickly followed across this county and nation); and first toll road in California. Yet we also have resistance to those forces, from the nineteenth-century utopian experiments such as the Placentia “Grass Eaters,” Societas Fraternas, to the seminal school desegregation case Mendez v Westminster, to the recent defeat of a toll road proposed for Trestles Beach. That proposed toll road was defeated by a coalition of surfers, environmentalists, and some indigenous activists concerned with protecting Panhe—but Panhe is a story that very few people know.

Panhe is a 9,000-year-old village mentioned in the baptismal registry of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Whenever a developer’s bulldozer unearths a skeleton that is many centuries old, in most of America, this brings a halt to construction. We have rules against building atop indigenous graves elsewhere, but not in Orange County. Here, many of the coastal and canyon spaces where the Acjahmen/Juaneno people lived are incredibly valuable real estate. Since the 1970s, Orange County’s developers have worked with Acjahmen people to ceremonially rebury any skeletons found across the county, placing them at Panhe. You can see Panhe from The 5 freeway if you know where to look, near Camp Pendleton, the closed nuclear reactors, and the immigration checkpoint—but all there is to see is a chain link fence. Without knowing the story, you might drive right by.

Just up the road from Panhe is the former TRW/Northrop Grumman test facility, a military-industrial research site which a 1988 forest fire exposed as the secret location of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative lasers. That, to me, is the story of Orange County. The Acjahmen activists who regularly gather at Panhe do so in the shadow of the Star Wars missiles. Our county may look like the Geography of Nowhere, and indeed the hypercapitalistism, attenuated community, and amnesiac history that James Kunstler describes is here—but it is also the site of deeply fascinating history with a wonderfully mind-spinning diversity.

From the quotidian Fullerton apartment made famous in The Adolescent’s 1979 punk song, “Kids of the Black Hole,” to the easily-overlooked Placentia river channel whose flooding killed forty people, forgotten for a long time except for a 1939 corrido—we have a history remembered in songs, murals, and some family stories, if not in widely-recognized literature.

In her seminal, Suburban Warriors,[5] Lisa McGirr writes that, perhaps because the built environment is not designed to foster community, Orange County’s postwar newcomers sought community in evangelical Protestant megachurches, which aimed to moor themselves with conservative ideas of tradition, even as they also used cutting-edge technologies. She may be right, but others of my students find community in the underground music scenes here, or in traditional Mexican dance troupes, or niche sports, or other subgroups that do not make it into the mass-cultural representation of this space.


We are not just the county that developed Taco Bell and Botox, as Tom Zoellner mentioned. We also developed the science-fiction genre of steampunk—appropriate to this alienating, high-tech landscape—and the Vietnamese diaspora’s musical revue extravaganza videos. There is much to be proud of, and a deep heterogeneity lurking beneath a surface that can appear homogeneous.

Orange County is full of the kinds of spaces that D. J. Waldie has called the “sacred ordinary”: flawed, human, commonplace, often overlooked, and, arguably, even holy.[6] It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know. As Waldie wrote in the 2005 afterword to his memoir, Holy Land—set just over the border from Orange County, in Lakewood—“Too many accounts of a suburban life fall into the trap of sentimentality or contempt. I have no desire to romanticize my past or set fire to it. This suburb hasn’t any barriers to tragedy. It’s a place that’s just as mortal as me.”[7] It is mortal, not a perfect paradise nor a despicable hell, but a very human middle ground.

The idea of the “sacred ordinary” brings us back to Eritrean-American poet Aracelis Girmay, whom my students embrace as much as Tom’s students do, especially her description of her childhood home, Orange County’s capital city of Santa Ana:

Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies,
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán….
Patron saint of kitchens, asphalt, banana trees,
bless us if you are capable of blessing.[8]

We need more literature about this space, as Tom Zoellner suggests. We need more understanding of the sacred ordinary—if only because it is, often, extraordinary.


[1] Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future,” 43.

[2] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

[3] The term “Holy Land” draws from D. J. Waldie’s magnificent memoir, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).

[4] Dorothy Mulkey, interview with Santa Ana Oral History Project, 13 December 2015,

[5] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[6] See Waldie, Holy Land; and also his “What Does It Mean to Become Californian?” Boom California, 28 March 2017,

[7] Waldie, Holy Land, 182.

[8] Aracelis Girmay, “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts,” in Teeth (Evanston, IL: Curbstone Books, 2007),

Tom Zoellner is a journalist, Associate Professor in the English Dept. at Chapman University, and Politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief (Penguin, 2014), and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His portion of this essay was adapted from a white paper delivered at a conference on the future of Orange County at Chapman University on 23 February 2017.

Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano and Thúy Võ Đặng, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

Copyright: © 2018 Tom Zoellner and Elaine Lewinnek. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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