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FOODIE RUSTICA: OCTOBER 2009

Train travel: Why OC rail towns remind us of yester-year.

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(Editor's note: The following is the unedited version of an article that first appeared in Orange Coast Magazine. Special thanks to Orange Coast for permission to republish.)

Orange County is the Rodney Dangerfield of urban areas. Seen by big city sophisticates north of the San Gabriel River as a bland suburban expanse, it gets no respect for its civic diversity. Sure, everybody likes Newport and Laguna Beach, but other than that it’s flyover country, an inconvenience traversed on the way to Disneyland or an Angels game.

Actually the county has a world-class built environment. Besides the charming coastal towns with their yacht harbors and luxe resorts and the trendsetting planned communities in Irvine and Mission Viejo, OC has a string of historic rail towns that are off the charts in terms of being picturesque and atmospheric and interesting and fun, the kind of places that, if you came across them on a road trip, would go down in memory as rare finds, mentioned in e-mails to friends at home: “We found this really cool little town by an old train station with fantastic architecture and art galleries and cafes. You have to stop here on your next trip.”

Strung like urban jewels along the Santa Fe rail line that first connected Orange County to the rest of the state and country in the 1880s, the downtown areas of Fullerton, Orange, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente have more entries in the National Register of Historic Places than Jones has in the phone book. At the same time, they are futuristic in a fascinating way, emerging as dynamic models of urban sustainability.

“These older downtowns are critically important in what they can teach us about how to live smarter in our cities,” says Warren Karlenzig, president of Common Current, a sustainability consulting firm that works with the state of California. “The train towns use less energy because they were designed to accommodate people getting off of transit and walking around to do their visiting and shopping.”

Packed with restaurants, boutiques and cultural attractions that draw both visitors and residents, the downtowns also provide most of the essentials of daily living: grocery stores and doctors offices, hair salons and hardware stores. They have libraries and churches and parks. They are places where you can live an active, enjoyable life without burning barrels of fossil fuel.

With Amtrak and Metrolink trains rumbling into their historic depots every half an hour or so, residents can get to Los Angeles, San Diego, the Inland Empire and points in between without taking the dust cover off the car. Since traveling by rail produces less than half the green house gases and air pollution per passenger mile as driving, this is a key green feature. Because they carefully maintain and reuse their historic buildings, the downtowns reduce the drain on natural resources that comes from mindless tearing down and rebuilding.

“They are great models for a greener future,” says Paul Mason Fotsch, an author and urbanist who teaches at Cal State Northridge. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people could live this way, walking to stores and restaurants from their homes instead of having to fight traffic?”

When I visited the OC downtowns, I had the same thought in each one at some point: “This is the best one, the most attractive and interesting, the one with the most magic.”

Then, a day or two later, I went on to the next one and had the same feeling all over again. I didn’t want to leave when the time I had allotted for interviews and exploration was used up and stayed for extra hours in each downtown, finding unexpected urban treasures down side streets and alleys. In San Clemente, I started reading condo ads in the window of a real estate office by the pier.

In a time when every coffee shop is a Starbucks and the same big box retailers dominate strip malls from coast to coast, Orange County’s historic rail towns are still distinct, different from every other place. People who live in residential neighborhoods clustered around the downtowns say their distinctness adds to a sense of community and personal identity. “I think the pride of belonging to and being part of something special is very important to people,” says Irvine architect Jeff Larson, AIA. “It grounds them and provides an anchor in an ever-changing world.” Fullerton »

Main | Fullerton | Orange | Santa Ana | San Juan Capistrano | San Clemente »

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