Orange County has long been reduced to a reliable, sometimes cruelly ironic, set of punch lines: white flight, cartoon Republican politics, megachurches, Disneyland. The targets may be easy, but it’s been hard for writers, activists, and academics to reframe the narrative, with a fake castle and a cement Matterhorn encouraging visitors to check their critical thinking at the freeway.
Critical thinking, however, is the purpose of Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang’s A People’s Guide to Orange County. It may, for some, remain a satellite of Los Angeles, but Orange County has come a long way, turning liberal politically and emerging as an economic powerhouse and international community, if still, in Ronald Reagan’s words, a place “where the good Republicans go before they die.”
Lewinnek is a professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton. Dang is a curator at UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archive. Arellano, an Alta contributing editor, is the former editor in chief of OC Weekly and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Working in a “spirit of discovery,” they together explore the region’s hidden history of struggle, assembling missing or purposely misplaced puzzle pieces. Their project applies political acumen to a practical regional guidebook featuring wayback machine–style micro-histories that reveal the county’s depth and breadth. The sites here reflect moments and communities often forgotten, ignored, or diminished.
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Meticulously, almost giddily cross-referenced, A People’s Guide to Orange County offers sources for every one of its 122 listings: scholars, journalists, poets, and activists. Entries include photographs, maps, archival materials, song lyrics, and protest chants. The idea is to uncover, piece by piece and location by location, the story of—forgive me—the real OC.
The authors make this clear in a sincere, if deadpan, note: “Readers are cautioned to explore and travel at their own risk and obey all local laws.”
A People’s Guide to Orange County is explicit in its intentions: to correct, provoke, or invite—often all at once. A case in point is the legendary Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach, an iconic gay meeting place and the site of political organizing that closed in 2007. Out back, in the Garden of Peace and Love, people who died of AIDS were memorialized.
The Boom Boom was housed at the historic Coast Inn, not far from Crystal Cove Cottages and the “Day Laborer Hiring Area” set up by the city of Laguna Beach in the 1980s in Laguna Canyon. Of course, there’s more than geography to connect these places in this alternative history that encourages us to look beyond easy narratives.
The Coast Inn is now closed. The Cottages have become vacation rentals. The city council, in collaboration with a nonprofit, sends advocates to the day laborers’ site “to minimize exploitation and wage theft”—this in a perversely wealthy community where there is no stop to the construction of mansions, many left unoccupied or used as party palaces for executives, even as cement trucks stop traffic on PCH.
Given the struggles over land use, real estate, and tourism, the politics of the coast may be more visible than in other places, especially when it comes to Indigenous peoples, including the Acjachemen, to whom the authors propose returning land.
Yes, this is a guide that makes political choices. It begins by recounting—and simultaneously interrogating—the politics of the orange, the orange grove, the orange crate, the bright orange Spanish revival fantasy past that gave the county its name. The book seeks to disrupt manufactured nostalgia from its opening entry, which recalls the Anaheim Orange and Lemon Association, a Sunkist packinghouse built in 1919. In contrast with the sunny PR myth, the authors note, “the orange groves surrounding this building would erupt in 1936, as workers both inside and outside tired of being paid pennies per box.” This was the Citrus War, “a little-remembered, crucial moment in Orange County’s history” that began at the old Pressel Orchard just a mile down the road.
It’s impossible to read A People’s Guide to Orange County without being helpfully distracted by “Nearby Sites of Interest” and “Favorite Neighborhood Restaurants.” But rearranging is the point. There’s the long-gone Japanese Village and Deer Park in Buena Park, now a different park: industrial. There’s Rush Park, an unincorporated gated enclave of Rossmoor, founded by the folks who later dreamed up Leisure World. A 1993 incident at Garden Grove’s Cafe Chu Lun led to a successful lawsuit against the police for racial profiling through the use of so-called Asian Mug Books. And in 1970, the authors remind us, Silverado Canyon was the site proposed by a consortium of South Orange County mayors for a homeless shelter, despite (or because of) the fact that it was “inaccessible by walking or public transportation, [and] far from support services or medical care or jobs.”
The writing is sharp and pulls no punches. It’s often cheerful and justifiably proud. Nowhere else, after all, has anybody assembled a user-friendly guide to this beautiful, benighted place, with plenty to make readers angry, but grateful too.
A People’s Guide to Orange County presents an inspired catalog of places. It’s a book of amazing sightseeing—site seeing—taking us to destinations that are not only historical or political but also cultural: the restaurant Taco Maria in Costa Mesa; the theater tradition of South Coast Repertory; the Noguchi Garden, a secret spot for public-art lovers.
The people have spoken, and here is where and when and how.•