Tag Archives: Southern California

The unstoppable Orange County

When I moved to LA, I feel like I inadvertantly chose sides in a long-standing feud: Los Angeles vs. Orange County. There is obviously a lot of history going way back, a lot of bad blood and passion. Well, I’m not from here so I don’t get it, the same way people from Texas don’t recognize the HUGE differences between Sonoma and Napa (Napa’s for auto parts – Sonoma’s the best. Even Grey’s Anatomy hunks agree! McDreamy: “Sonoma. Smaller hotels. Fewer tourists.“). So far, these are things I’ve noticed on my brief forays to Orange County.

  • The highway is a lot wider.
  • There is a lot of water-intensive landscaping, even in the industrial parks, but there are basically no orange trees anywhere.
  • The outdoor mall in Irvine can only be accurately described as vast.

Thankfully, there is a book to enlighten us on the charms of this southern land: Orange County: A Personal History.


I found out about the newest book by Gustavo Arellano, the author of the syndicated column, Ask a Mexican, from his recent Zocalo lecture. I’ve taken to downloading the lectures as podcasts and I listen at the gym so that I’m simultaneously getting both buffer AND smarter.
The same way a good teacher can make anything interesting, so can a good writer. Gustavo Arellano is as funny as ever, plus the book has lots of my favorite stuff – history and musings on Mexican/American culture. He’s got a great section on OC religion from The Purpose-Driven Life to the Hour of Power. I’m planning a field trip to the Crystal Cathedral.
Orange County is actually part of my personal history as well. I may have been raised in Northern California, but my half-sister, Dana, grew up in Newport Beach, as did her husband. I recently visited my sister’s old haunts for the first time ever. We walked around Balboa Island and she pointed out places our dad used to go when his family vacationed down south in the summers. It was kind of surreal to be connected to a place I’d never visited.
But as Gustavo points out, we’re ALL connected to Orange County in one way or another, since it’s one of those rare American places with political and cultural influence far beyond its size. He may be the county’s #1 critic, but he’s also it’s #1 cheerleader. Read it, love it, embrace the OC. (Just don’t call it that.)


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Filed under California history, Orange County

The majestic redwoods of downtown Los Angeles

It was hot in downtown LA last Saturday. People moved languidly between the funky buildings along Broadway, squinting in the piercing sunlight. After a three-hour historical tour, my boyfriend, German, and I were definitely ready for a relaxing sit-down lunch. We crossed the street and popped into Clifton’s Cafeteria, a Los Angeles institution for over 74 years and the biggest cafeteria in the entire country.
From the glass doors in front, you walk straight back along the wall to a labyrinthine stainless steel counter at the very back, sliding your tray past dishes of coleslaw and potato salad over to the hot trays filled with chicken swimming in barbecue sauce, towers of mashed potatoes and a puddle of macaroni and cheese.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Snag a slice of coconut cream pie and you emerge from the sterile food service area into someone’s version of a forest wonderland.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

A waterfall trickles down the middle of the cavernous two-story space and the walls are covered with life-size murals of the redwoods. Fake redwoods stick out from the walls, there are small statues of bears and a mechanical raccoon poking out of a tree stump.
I didn’t see it coming. People had told me the place was like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp, but strangely, no one mentioned that it also endeavored to transport you to the coast of northern California (or Frontier Land in Disneyland). After eating, we wound our way up the stairs and off the second level, you could squeeze into a tiny chapel. Sitting on the narrow bench, you looked into a forest diorama. I pressed the button and a man’s voice intoned a poem about God and nature. Surreal, but strangely soothing to be squeezed into a little space in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria. Very zen.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles
See the chapel in the right-hand corner.

I suppose it was everything the founders dreamed. We rustled up a detailed brochure that explained a lot. The Clifton family opened their first cafeteria in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Depression. They weren’t newcomers to the business, having run restaurants in San Francisco, and they drew on another fount of experience – serving in the mission fields of China. “Clifford, one of the five children with them in China, was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food that he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.”
You could say so. The cafeteria had a policy of never turning away anyone who was hungry and, during one 90-day period, it fed 10,000 people for free. As if that weren’t enough, Clifford went on to found a nonprofit that distributed “Multi-Purpose Food” to people around the globe (I picture something along the lines of a graham cracker block).
All of this is pretty extraordinary, but what I find so remarkable is that the cafeteria still exists, essentially unchanged for at least 50 years. And not just the one I went to downtown, but five locations across the L.A. area that serve 15,000 people a day. Cheesy, surreal, but strangely comforting.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Uncategorized, Weirdness

A walk through L.A.’s old movie palaces

To a certain extent, exploring Los Angeles’ historic Broadway theater district feels like stumbling upon King Tut’s tomb. Some of the most unassuming exteriors give way to sumptuous interiors, caverns adorned with gold baroque carvings punctuated by the leering faces of exotic royalty, the ceiling dripping with glass chandeliers.
Their charms are hidden for the most part. Our docent from the Los Angeles Conservancy pointed out details we never would have caught. One run-down marquee had a couple of shops crowded under it. The owner of the electronics shop kindly let us through the back into his storage room – the former theater stripped of its chairs, but still grand with its vaulted ceiling and touch of decoration.
Interior of old Broadway theater, now an electronics shop storeroom
Some were tragically beyond repair, nothing left but the shell of the building. Others were preserved even as their purpose had changed. Two of the theaters that were in the best shape were now under heavy and radically different uses by their current owners – one as a church, the other a jewelry shop, its floor as packed as the cosmetics section of Macy’s.
Theater isn’t the right word – at the time, these spaces were known as movie palaces, a far more accurate moniker. In the 1930s, this short stretch of Broadway supported a dozen theaters offering a mix of cinema and vaudeville. They could accomodate 17,000 people on a single night. Any world culture and any historic motif was fair game. Los Angeles is the capital of make believe after all, where appearances sometimes matter more than substance. Perhaps as a result, the architectural styles are a mishmash of influences. The Citadel mall – L.A. does Egypt. The vast outdoor mall in Irvine – L.A. does southern Spain. Grauman’s Chinese Theater – L.A. does the “Orient.”
Historians here are perhaps better off celebrating the eclectic influences than trying to get developers to be true to a single style. After all, L.A. is no ancient city so any way you cut it, the architects here are probably copying someone else.
There are too many treasures along Broadway to name, too many good stories so you’ll just have to take the tour for yourself.
It was exciting to see those theaters that are still vibrant, perhaps most notably the Orpheum which now hosts world-class concerts and even American Idol try-outs. The owner kindly let us take a seat in front and a man headed to the stage, plopped down on the bench seat of the organ and proceeded to play us a bit of an epic movie score. It was about as close to time travel as I’ll ever get.

Take a little walk for yourself with my interactive map. I’ll add some more pictures next week.

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Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles

The original name of L.A.

I recently picked up a copy of The Founding Documents of Los Angeles: A Bilingual Edition at my local library. Since I don’t think even the most glowing recommendation would send you running to the library, I’ll pull out a few highlights here and save you the trouble.

Many have heard at some point or another that the original name of Los Angeles is actually something crazy long. That is somewhat true, according to a very good, heavily footnoted essay by Theodore Treutlein. He attempts to lay this question to rest once and for all. Unfortunately, if Snopes.com can’t kill email forwards, I don’t think that his essay will singlehandedly kill the mistruths around the original name of the City of Angels. However, he’s convinced me.

According to our dear friend, Theodore, the original name was….(drumroll)….

Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles (Town of the Queen of Angels)

In some early documents, the authors threw in some other stuff which is how the rumor started that the original name was:

Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reyna de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula

It’s certainly catchy. Those of you who speak Spanish will be asking at this point, “Where the heck is the Porciuncula River?” Well, right where it has always been, running right down the middle of the pueblo. Only now it looks like the final scene from Grease and is known merely as the Los Angeles River. I supposed the beauty of the name goes down in direct proportion to the beauty of the river.

And now here we find ourselves in a place now known best by it’s initials – L-A. I don’t know whether I miss the more grandiose name or if this means LA has actually ascended into an exclusive club. After all, only three U.S. cities are well-known by their initials alone – LA, DC and NYC. Not bad company at all! 







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Filed under Los Angeles, Uncategorized

The soundtrack to the return

That first entry took a kind of serious tone, but no worries, I have no fear of the light side. On that note (pun intended, blame my father), here are a couple tunes to get you in that California state of mind.

The Going Back to California mega-mix

The OC Song – because what’s more So-Cal than that?

You’re feeling it, aren’t you?

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Filed under I heart Cali, Los Angeles

Cruzando la frontera

First of all, apologies to anyone to whom this blog post is the first news of my return to my home state of California. I’ve been a bit of an underachiever in communication lately. Not only have I moved from Mexico City back to Northern California, but a month ago, I moved from Sonoma to the Los Angeles.

For out-of-staters, that may not seem so dramatic, but us Californians have a long-standing feud between the north and south. Our DMZ is probably around San Luis Obispo, where the “border” is just a construct and chilled out surfer boys and conservative Christian girls hook up at Cal Poly house parties.

When I told people in Sonoma/Bay Area I was moving south, most said, “Why?” Then they usually mentioned how awful the traffic is, how shallow people are and pointed out there are lots of Republicans down there. Perhaps the signature comment was made by Caspian when I said my boyfriend lives down here: “Wow, you must really like the guy!”

To illustrate the depth of the split California psyche, I’ll just point you to an art exhibition from 2000 called “Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias” by Sandow Birk. The series of paintings, propaganda posters, topographical maps, ship models and portraits of key military figures illustrate a fictional war between northern and southern California. 

When sarcastic barbs were exchanged for weapons. MAY WE NEVER FORGET!!!

This blog is meant to be a reconciliation of sorts between my various homes: Sonoma, CA, Mexico City, and now, Los Angeles, bringing light and understanding to all who read it. That might be a stretch, so I’ll just aim for getting you to chuckle out loud in your cubicle at work and maybe occasionally to scratch your head and say, “Gee whiz, never thought of it that way.”

Northern friends, I have crossed California. I am in the belly of the beast and truthfully it’s pretty nice. There are lots of palm trees. More insights coming soon.

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Filed under DF AKA Mexico City, Los Angeles, Sonoma, Uncategorized