By Scott Duke Harris
April 24, 2005
In the 50 years since Walt Disney built "the Happiest Place on Earth" in a land where suburbia was crowding out citrus groves, Orange County has evolved into a metropolis fit for a marquee. Once a humble supporting character in the great American drama, it now comes across as an action hero on steroids, all pumped up and shiny for the 21st century with a swaggering prime-time sobriquet: "The OC."
A county supervisor got so carried away with the pithy title of the hit Fox soap opera that he suggested changing the name of John Wayne Airport to the O.C. Airport—John Wayne Field before snickers shot him down. But just as Disneyland now seems a quaint diversion here, the far-right politics that once distinguished Orange County from the rest of Southern California are a footnote. OC is all about the good life now, and livin' it extra-large—sort of like that towering statue of the celluloid cowboy down by the baggage claim.
Strange how a county that was once so conservative, so square, got so happening. Take it from a native: The old Orange County was a quilt of largely hum-drum communities with their discrete charms. Now its 34 cities and unincorporated patches have mutated into a mega-city with more than 3 million people and its own identity and ethos. The new OC is a Todayland for people with serious money or a reckless way with a credit card.
Caren Lancona loves the high-energy, soft-focus OC. She is in her element motoring around greater Newport Beach in one of her two Mercedes-Benzes, usually the pewter Kompressor Sport with the vanity plate BSCENE—a plug for her ad agency. "This used to be all surfing and skateboards," says Lancona. "Now it's Monte Carlo."
The vestiges of wealth also drape the inland hills and valleys, though much of the pseudo-Mediterranean splendor is a mirage created by easy credit. It may look robust, but Orange County is a hot zone for a contagious social condition that compels people to live beyond their means. Lancona calls it "affluenza."
Natives who remember Orange County's own Richard Nixon in the White House may have misty memories of a fundamentally middle-class place. The old OC was a bedroom community of Los Angeles that also served as barracks for the military-industrial complex. I grew up in a tract in Santa Ana, the son of a career Marine based at El Toro who later worked for a missile maker. This military bearing helped make OC a flag-waving bastion of hawkish politics—a Cold War fortress against the threat of communism. Disneyland was camouflage for the earnest business at hand.
With the commies defeated, the Marines shipped out and the economic globalization kicked into high gear, spurring OC's retail and tourism sectors. The good life became ever more glorious as real estate development fueled an upward spiral of luxury.
Even as local baseball fans grumble about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County has forged a charismatic identity with global appeal. Several years ago a visiting Chinese businessman became so smitten with OC that he hired a Newport Beach architecture firm to collaborate on an upscale subdivision near Beijing named Jujun—a Mandarin phrase that evokes Orange County. How's that for a cultural revolution?
Back in California's OC, meanwhile, consumption keeps getting more conspicuous. More sumptuous resort hotels with suites priced up to $6,000 per night have sprouted along the coast. People are paying upward of $2 million for glorified tract homes on view lots and filling their garages with cars from a fleet of luxury-vehicle dealers. High-end retail centers are tallying record sales. Regional magazines with names such as Riviera and Grand Tour are dripping with ads for jewelry, spa treatments and cosmetic enhancements. A publisher's note in Grand Tour closes with these encouraging words: "It's all about you."
Remarkably, OC's consumer fever spiked after Sept. 11, 2001. On that morning, as the world absorbed televised images of terror, Antony Chandler headed to work at Fletcher Jones Motor Cars in Newport Beach, the busiest Mercedes-Benz dealer in the U.S. "We sold 14 Mercedes that day," he says, better than an average Tuesday. Since then—as the Department of Homeland Security issues the occasional "orange alert"—business has been booming. Last year, Fletcher Jones Motor Cars exceeded $500 million in revenues. A short drive away, South Coast Plaza topped $1 billion in sales for the first time in 2002, and reached $1.25 billion in 2004—25% growth in two years. If anything, the specter of terror seems to open wallets here, Chandler says. "It's like people think, 'Life is too short—why not enjoy it?' "
Global or local, every economy needs a consumer sector, and sheer consumption may now define Orange County much as high-tech exemplifies Silicon Valley. The affluent veneer is reinforced by "The OC," the Fox sitcom "Arrested Development" and MTV's "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County." The mythical Wisteria Lane of ABC's "Desperate Housewives"—set in a sun-soaked, materialistic Anytown—was created by OC native Marc Cherry. But the pop portrayals obscure larger truths about the place.
Plenty of Orange County residents, of course, go about their lives, working to better their lot without succumbing to envy, greed or other pitfalls of consumerism. In Santa Ana, for example, Latinos who help prop up the good life account for more than 75% of the population. A few miles west in Westminster, Little Saigon is the hub of the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, and includes my wife's family.
Amid all of the pagan pleasures of OC, religious faith is livin' large too. It's no coincidence that the county has spawned humongous churches and served as the launch pad for "The Purpose Driven Life," a spiritual guide by the founding pastor of Saddleback Church. Rick Warren's book, which has sold more than 22 million copies in more than 20 languages, opens with these words: "It's not about you."
There was a time when I thought I knew Orange County pretty well. But the new OC makes my head hurt, and I wonder if such prosperity is healthy or unhealthy. How did it change so much, so fast? And why? Borrowing my mom's Ford Escort, I set out in search of answers.
Jamboree Road, graded as a route to a Boy Scout gathering in 1953, may become OC's version of Wilshire Boulevard. The broad thoroughfare is fed by a toll road that funnels drivers from the Inland Empire toward OC's modern economic heart and, if they follow it to the end, to yacht-ringed Balboa Island. Two residential high-rises promising doormen and concierges are going up south of the airport, and there are plans for several more.
I find my way to the Newport Beach home of Bob Caustin. He's a real estate broker and environmental activist who does not adore the new OC, and he wants to show me why. Heading south on Pacific Coast Highway out of Corona del Mar, we come to Crystal Cove State Beach. Above this patch of ruggedly handsome coast is Crystal Cove Promenade, a high-end retail center, and above that lies a gated community crowded with Mediterranean-style villas. This is all part of Newport Coast, a once-vacant buffer between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
Another road takes us up, up, up to an Irvine Company sales office with a God-like view from Palos Verdes to Catalina Island to Dana Point. To the right and below, the waterfront homes of Newport Harbor look like filigree around a gemstone. On this spring day, a half-acre home site is selling for about $4 million. Some buyers have been snapping up two. Within a few years, palaces will festoon this hill, each with a big garage that needs vehicles, rooms that need furnishings, closets that need fashions, vaults that need valuables.
"To me it's capitalism at its worst," Caustin mutters, referring to the earthmovers carving up the land. Turning inland, we travel a few miles to Shady Canyon, a gated community selling unshaded lots around a private golf club. It's yet another option among many for multimillionaires, another reason to blow five bucks on a Quick Pick.
So what's not to like?
For starters, these seven-figure housing costs trickle down to established communities such as Santa Ana and Garden Grove, where families double or triple up to make the rent and children are jammed into under-performing public schools. Consider the lucky Fuentes family. Before moving into a three-bedroom Santa Ana bungalow built by Habitat for Humanity, Mario, Iris and their five daughters shared a home with relatives. Fourteen people and one bathroom. Joe Perring, chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit's OC branch, lives in Newport Beach, but sees how rising home costs in Orange County can affect more modest dreams, such as decent housing and schools.
The expense of OC homes—the median sales price topped $660,000 in February, nearly $190,000 higher than L.A. County—also is pushing sprawl deeper into less pricey Riverside and San Bernardino counties, creating demand for wider highways and toll roads that would tunnel through mountains in Cleveland National Forest.
And day by day, the insidious effects of "affluenza" show up in record levels of personal debt and bankruptcies. It's a national affliction, but the work-and-spend treadmill is particularly intense in "pleasure domes" such as Orange County, says Peter C. Whybrow, director of UCLA's neuropsychiatric institute and author of "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough." Daily life here is a constant reminder of things you don't have—yet.
Is it the American way? "Conspicuous consumption" was a phrase coined at the turn of the 20th century by economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen. In his 1959 book, "The Status Seekers," Vance Packard explored social climbing during a post-World War II economic boom, when people talked of "keeping up with the Joneses." Today, Whybrow suggests, Americans acquire more stuff, yet feel more stress. "Don't misunderstand me," he says. "There is nothing wrong with pleasure. Pleasure is wonderful."
The problem begins, he adds, when people sacrifice happiness from human relationships to chase things that they'll ultimately want to replace.
Easy credit helps make it all possible. Jim Frannea, president of the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County, says his clients in 2004 had accumulated an average unsecured debt of $49,000, nearly double the amount of two years earlier. The reasons aren't clear, and surely it's all not due to rampant acquisitiveness. But it's part of a pattern. After years of steady increases, personal bankruptcy filings in OC recently dipped because, Frannea says, homeowners borrowed against their rising home equity to pay off bills.
Cracks sometimes appear in the veneer of success. Bruce W. Cook, publisher of Grand Tour, tells of a charity auction crowded with bidders. The gavel clacked on a vacation deal, sold for $10,000. Above the applause rose a tipsy wife's angry hiss: "I can't believe you spent $10,000 on a travel package when you know I need more clothes!"
As I approach Fletcher Jones Motor cars, it's a relief to see a parking spot on the street. To drive onto the lot with all those pretty cars, well, it just wouldn't be fair to the Escort.
Fletcher "Ted" Jones bought the Newport Beach dealership after it filed for bankruptcy protection in the early '90s. With its emphasis on service, the business thrived. Car a little dusty? Drop by for a free wash and a cappuccino while you wait—as long as 90 minutes on a Saturday morning. Get a manicure from Cinnamon Davis or perhaps work on your putting on the green out back.
Antony Chandler, a sales manager, sees the credit reports of customers and marvels at their behavior. "We get the cream of people who can afford it," he says in the accent of his native Zimbabwe. "And we get the cream of people who want to seem like they can afford it."
Chandler puzzles over why young people still renting apartments want to make $800 monthly lease payments on a car—not that he'd try to talk them into a Honda. He points out the terms of a typical transaction: A 25-year-old man with good credit putting down $2,500 and paying $758 a month for a 48-month lease on a $52,000 Mercedes. That's $38,884 to essentially rent a car for four years.
Europeans, Chandler says, buy Mercedes-Benzes because they know they're quality cars that will last 10 or 12 years. But Americans, and particularly OC drivers, sometimes don't finish a four-year lease because they want the newest model. Sixty-five percent of Fletcher Jones customers choose to lease, Chandler says.
Jones had excellent timing. Even though Orange County's municipal government would declare bankruptcy, defaulting on junk bonds, powerful economic forces both global (such as Pacific Rim trade) and local (the Irvine Company) were primed for growth. In the late 1980s, globalization began to quietly pump up Orange County's economy, says Spencer Olin, professor emeritus of history at UC Irvine.
By mid-1989, Asian car makers Mazda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Suzuki and Daihatsu had located their U.S. headquarters in OC. Twenty other Asian firms soon opened offices in Irvine. The county's high-tech sector began to blossom, and UC Irvine began attracting wealthy Asians who wanted an American education. Olin, who lives in the Irvine village of Woodbridge, says that when he strolls around the man-made lake he overhears conversations in at least six languages. The master-planned city that critics once predicted would be a haven of "white flight" is now more than 30% Asian.
OC's greatest shopping destination, South Coast Plaza, anticipated the metamorphosis. Avoiding the valets, I park and find my way to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where Anton Segerstrom is waiting. His family had farmed lima beans for generations until his father, in 1967, began to convert their land bordering the 405 Freeway in Costa Mesa. The elder Segerstrom developed South Coast Plaza and, years later, the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Though it also incorporates a Sears store offering lube jobs, South Coast Plaza pulls in seriously wealthy shoppers with its designer boutiques—the fruits of a strategic decision made 15 years ago, says Segerstrom, offering a business card with no title. He tells me that as a difficult economy pushed many new retail centers toward "big box" anchors, his father sensed OC's upscale potential: The arrival of Tiffany & Co. marked a turning point, and before long, Gucci, Dior, Chanel and many others followed.
Today South Coast Plaza says it is the highest-grossing planned retail center in the nation. Shoppers from outside OC, including many domestic and foreign tourists, make up 35% of its business. Foreign tourists fly into John Wayne Airport in private jets, Segerstrom says. "They come for plastic surgery, for golf and for shopping. And they bring wads of cash." All of this explains why, in 2004, Plaza management trademarked the slogan, "The Ultimate Shopping Resort."
But most shoppers are locals who, even if they rarely venture into the priciest boutiques, learn early to honor the retail hierarchy. On a second outing to South Coast Plaza, I wander into Abercrombie & Fitch, where some "destroyed" jeans priced at $109 remind me of my threadbare $12 Kirklands from Costco. I introduce myself to two girls who tell me they are 13 years old and live in Irvine, and while their parents won't trust them with a credit card, they have a friend whose mom doesn't blink when she runs up $400 in purchases. "She's really spoiled," one says. But when I ask if they would ever shop around the bend at the Gap, the girl in the Hollister sweatshirt looks as if she had just tasted sour milk. "No. No way."
Such comments are symptomatic of "affluenza." "When I first came here, there were two things I didn't like," says Chandler, the Mercedes purveyor. "One was putting chrome wheels on a Mercedes. The other was breast augmentation. It just seemed weird."
"Within three months I had a Mercedes with chrome wheels and a girlfriend similarly upgraded. So I assimilated."
Now i'm pointing the Escort east on El Toro Road, past a dowdy shopping center anchored by a 99 Cents Only store and into the Lake Forest foothills covered with familiar beige homes. Before long, I'm sitting among 3,200 people at Saddleback Church, listening to Pastor Doug Fields tell a story about an encounter he had with a woman driving an immaculate white Chevrolet Suburban.
He opened his car door in a parking lot, lightly bumping her car. She became livid. "She didn't just drop the F-bomb," Fields says. "She dropped the A-through-Z bomb." Fields apologized profusely, he says, and pointed out that there was no ding, no scratch. The woman drove off waving at him. "I think it was a wave," Fields jokes. "The windows were tinted."
Laughter rises from the main sanctuary. Then the minister turns serious. As the woman drove off, Fields recalls, "I thought: That's Orange County."
Long before "The Purpose Driven Life" became a phenomenon, before it helped a hostage in Atlanta persuade her captor to turn himself in, Pastor Rick Warren applied his purposes to the rootless sprawl of south Orange County. "We have been trying to redefine the 'good life,' " Warren says. "People in Southern California, specifically Orange County, typically describe it as 'looking good, feeling good and having the goods.' But the truth is, the good life is all about 'doing good.' "
He proudly points out that the 20,000-plus-member Saddleback congregation raised $1.5 million for tsunami relief "over and above the church offering."
It's ironic, then, that the church born 25 years ago in Warren's living room is often likened to a spiritual shopping mall. On any Sunday, parishioners can get their Christian message in assorted live-music venues, including a tent-like structure for hard rock and another featuring gospel. There is also a center for children's services near the café.
Fields' shtick-cum-sermon ushered in a three-weekend series titled "Simplify Your Life." First, to warm up the crowd, giant screens aired a mock exposé called "Garage Raiders," with a flamboyant reporter ambushing Saddleback clergy. Why was Pastor Glen polishing a red Ferrari? Next up was a live skit in which two men spoke covetously of their neighbors' Mercedes-Benzes, Harleys and Sea-Doos. Fields then touched on how people rationalize their choices, like the friend who bought a Hummer because "it's really a safe car."
Warren's message and style, reinforced by a large staff of pastors and lay ministers, doesn't hector on the evils of Mammon and materialism. Instead it is a soft-sell aimed at the unchurched who may enjoy such pleasures. Warren's method, imitated across America, tries to gradually guide "seekers" toward spiritual values. Many Saddleback members, pastors tell me, have changed their spending habits, forgoing luxuries to tithe to the church and donate to other charities.
Secular souls, meanwhile, question any venture that seeks a 10% cut. Yaron Brook is one. He is executive director and president of the Irvine-based Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes Rand's objectivist philosophy exalting individualism, private property and an utterly unfettered free market. Rand, he says, would have liked aspects of OC. "She would have enjoyed the fact it is a wealthy county that seems to enjoy [its] wealth."
Like Rand, Brook is an atheist, but he may find common ground with believers. He defends everyone's right to spend money as they choose, but also complains of "a mindlessness" in those choices. "The culture is being made more shallow," he says. "The movement toward religion is a search for values."
Values can be fun.
Inside her tiny Touch of Cinnamon studio at Fletcher Jones Motor Cars, stylist Cinnamon Davis reaches for a copy of Orange Coast Magazine, flipping to the society photos: "That's me and my best friend Caren! We're philanthropists!"
They're an odd couple, the ethereal Davis, who describes herself as "very healing," and the street-wise Lancona, with an MBA from UCLA. Just Friends is the joint venture that landed their photo in Orange Coast, just like the Segerstroms.
They call Just Friends "OC's Premier Philanthropic Social Club." Tapping its mailing list of Newport Beach's richest ZIP Codes, Just Friends coordinates charity events that also promote local businesses. One recent soiree happened at Chat Noir, a French restaurant, and drew 110 women and about 15 men who paid $95 each for dinner, drinks and a chance to donate their lightly worn clothes to Working Wardrobes for a New Start, which outfits people returning to the workforce. The donated garments, including Dior, St. John and Escada, filled a small truck. It was a win-win: The needy got nice threads, and the donors not only felt good, they got closet space for new purchases.
Davis and Lancona portray Just Friends as an extension of the good work they do every day. "People come in here who need a good lawyer, a good doctor or a good plastic surgeon," Lancona says. "We hook 'em up."
The subtitle of "The Purpose Driven Life" is a question: "What on Earth Am I Here For?" I wonder: What on earth is this new Orange County here for?
The purpose-driven Escort finds its way back to the home in north Santa Ana that was brand-new in 1952, when a Marine and his bride decided that $14,000 was a fair price for two bedrooms, a den and 1 3/4 baths. Now that bride is a 77-year-old widow, and similar homes nearby are approaching $500,000.
Whatever its faults, the old Orange County understood its mission: The mass production and protection of the standard-issue American Dream. This new OC seems bent on pushing the American Dream Extreme.
Because it can.