Mall mad

Photo by Keith MayOn the evening of July 31, 1769, a party led by Don Gaspar Portola camped out in Brea Canyon during the famed explorer's first march north from San Diego to Monterey. The next morning, the conquering Spaniards forced their enslaved Native American servants to construct Brea's first strip mall.

Brea is a town that's filled with malls, from sad, dilapidated centers nobody visits anymore to the polished, plasticized, we're-not-South-Coast-Plaza-but-we're-really-trying ambiance of Brea Mall and the spiffier, gaudier "shoppertainment" retail environs of the newer Birch Street Mall—excuse us, that's the Birch Street Promenade. So mall-mad is Brea that in recent years, a couple of golf courses were torn up to make way for large consumerist meccas—which, in golf-crazed OC, is really saying something.

Yet as malled-out as Brea may seem, there are pockets of genuine wilderness north of the city. Carbon Canyon Regional Park boasts miles of hiking trails—including one that leads to a grove of redwoods—and the drive along Brea Canyon Road, past the rusting remains of the old oil derricks that lent the city its name ("brea" means "tar" in Spanish, y'see), is quite pretty, though often congested with commuter traffic flowing to and from LA and San Bernardino counties. These areas make the town's official nickname—"Tree City USA"—seem a little less of an irony.


Whittier Boulevard. Did you know that the eastern terminus of this famous avenue, featured in many an East Los Angeles dream, is at Puente Street, amidst a gaggle of quiet, conservative, white-middle-class houses?


Art in Public Places. In 1975, the City Council demanded that all new major developments in Brea must include some sort of public sculpture. Twenty-six years later, Brea is riddled with more than 100 pieces of art. Most of it is crap—lots of large, curvy, shiny, inoffensive blobs with self-explanatory titles like Warped Cube and Wall Arch and Post, befitting the corporate mindset of major developers conforming to an artless government edict. Some, though, are worth noting: the funky human gargoyles that loom over the Brea Mall parking garage—um, parking terrace—that appear to mock rampant consumerism while also embracing it (note the chewing gum that various passers-by have stuck to the bountiful tits of Granny Garg); Doublecheck, a lifesize bronze of a frazzled businessman poring over notes in his briefcase (though you can't see the briefcase—it was stolen by vandals several years ago and has yet to be replaced); and Loving Guidance, the Carlos Terres scandal-in-the-making piece in front of the Brea Community Center that depicts the player-coach relationship between two Lucille-Ball-coifed women,one standing in front clutching a volleyball as the butcher one stands behind, left hand cradling her pupil's left elbow and right hand resting seductively on her right shoulder. It's a monument to lesbian erotica, and, even better, it's across the street from the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary!


Birch Street Promenade. Downtown Brea used to be quaint and serene, with faux-Western shopfronts and chipped-paint wood-and-brick buildings that dated almost to the turn of the 20th century. A "BREA WELCOMES YOU" sign arched across Brea Boulevard, throwing you back to another, less-populated era. It was a small-town vibe amid the clatter of a hypermetropolated county. A few years ago, it was all bulldozed to make way for the flashy, glittery, corporate-neon bedazzlement you see today (though construction delays left the area a depressed mess of vacant lots for some time, giving the hood all the elegant ambiance of 1980s Beirut). There are undoubtedly some cranky natives who despise this "new" downtown—the megaplexes (not one but two), the sparkly sidewalks, the Old Navy, the overpriced boutiques, the gargantuan Tower Records store, the trendy eateries, the Starbucks (not one but two). But say what they will, Brea now has what was once thought a laughable flight of fancy: a nightlife that amounts to something more than a Saturday-night sprint around the shelves at the local video store. Birch Street, west of Brea Boulevard.Brea Mall. The Birch Street Promenade of the '70s. Your basic suburban indoor shopping mall, really. What did you expect? 1065 Brea Mall, (714) 990-2732.Two Wheeler Dealer. I bought my mountain bike here back in 1990. Eleven years later, the shop is still around, and so's my bike. They must be good. 1039 E. Imperial Hwy., Ste. F3, (714) 671-1730.


Carbon Canyon Road. Also known as California Highway 142 to the folks at Caltrans, Carbon Canyon Road offers not only a remote locale for dumping that dead body in your trunk but also the perfect two-lane drive for when the strains of urbanized OC get to be too much. Just don't go slower than 60 unless you want the short-tempered urchin behind you to flash his brights and possibly his middle finger. For a real scare, though, try driving this road at night (say, around 3 a.m.) up to a quiet little hamlet on the other side of the OC/San Berdoo county line named—for real—Sleepy Hollow. Oooo-WOO-woooo . . .


Carbon Canyon Regional Park. Rustic and rarely crowded, this slice of North County wildlife nestled in the beckoning cleavage of Chino Hills is the kind of place that people just sort of stumble upon and then go to great lengths to keep secret. Highlights are the aforementioned hiking trails and redwood grove, plus the usual barbecue grills, picnic tables, mountain bike/equestrian paths (don't spook the horses, please) and acres of gorgeous green grass. 17002 Carbon Canyon Rd., (714) 996-5252.
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