Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa translates into "coastal tableland" in some undetermined language, but it is believed what the Chinamen meant by that is that the town hovers over Newport Bay. Funny story about that: years and years and years ago—after the Chinamen had been run out and Master Whitey ran things—no one wanted to live in what would become Newport Beach (cold, sand got in your sandwiches, smelled of dead fish). This led to an unfriendly rivalry that had Costa Mesa referring to the lowlands as "Mackerel Flats," while the backward types that hugged the coast called the higher ground "Goat Hill." That's because goats used to graze on the Costa Mesa grasslands until they were all rounded up, turned into frat boys and corralled at Henry 'N Harry's Goat Hill Tavern (141 beer tap handles! Darts!).

After the Spanish illegally seized Orange County land from native inhabitants, Santiago Del Santa Ana gave the Costa Mesa chunk (and more) to Jose Antonio Yorba, who sold off pieces to settlers who in the 1880s established the town of Fairview. Nearby was another little town named Harper after a rancher. In 1920, it all came together as Costa Mesa. The Santa Ana Army Air Base, America's largest basic training center for World War II aviators and flight crews, later became the Orange County Fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa High School and the present site of the Civic Center.

Swedish dairyman C.J. Segerstrom and penniless Japanese immigrant Roy Sakioka acquired plots of land in Costa Mesa and adjacent towns and planted beans and celery, respectively, then showed the discipline to hold on to their properties until they reached their maximum values for the inevitable freeways, shopping centers and office towers that popped up. The Segerstrom and Sakioka families now appear on the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. The immigrant success stories intertwined in the city's history are obviously lost on the City Council members and gadflies bent on driving Latino immigrants out of town.

Despite such interference, Costa Mesa is still the birthplace of many firsts. Orange County's first four-year college, Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University) moved to Costa Mesa from Pasadena in 1950. The county's most successful shopping mall, the Segerstroms' South Coast Plaza, opened in 1967 (ironically, the same year as the Irvine Co.'s Fashion Island in Newport Beach), and the first Nordstrom outside the Pacific Northwest opened at the plaza in 1978.

Other Costa Mesa firsts include the county's tallest building, the 21-story Center Tower Building, opened in 1985 (a crown that will eventually be given up to Mike Harrah in Santa Ana). That same year, the county's first carpool lane opened on the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway. And South Coast Repertory is the first and only county theater production company to win a Tony Award, in 1988 for Distinguished Achievement by a Regional Theater.

The city has used its fame from SCR, the 3,000-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center and various other pockets of creativity (including the light-industrial 17th Street area where many action-sportswear manufacturers started/still operate) to market itself as "The City of the Arts."

But silly City Hall, when the arts community approached the council in the early 1990s about continuing city support of the worldwide anti-AIDS program "A Day Without Art," then-Mayor Sandra Genis refused, claiming that a city had no business expending funds (in this case, the cost of a paper proclamation) for a national observance. Genis was accused of insensitivity and homophobia, claims that gained more validity when she issued a city proclamation for the Boy Scouts of America.

Photo by Heather X
Best Recycling As we understand it, the Lab Anti-Mall began as a canning factory for Costa Mesa's manifold lima bean fields, then as a manufacturer of night-vision goggles for Cold Warriors and, more recently, as the vision-in-concrete of former surfwear mogul Shaheen Sadeghi. We feel kind of stupid pointing this out—even the Japanese know the Lab—but we will anyhow: the Lab is to architecture what recycling is to aluminum cans or, better, what found objects are to the art world: It's a brilliant little piece of commercial art and history, a public space that can practically fit in your pocket, an inspiration. And if you want to see what Sadeghi can do with bare earth, walk across Bristol to The Camp. The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.

Best Sacred Indian Site Now Serving as a Buffer Between a Town's Most- and Least-Affluent Residents Fairview Park. Besides offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, open land to fly kites and the perfect place to release captured rodents, Fairview Park is where the Fairview Indian Site is located. Two different Indian cultures, the earliest dating back to 1500 B.C., thrived here, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Kept so natural that few Costa Mesans have ever set foot there, Fairview Park serves mostly as a demilitarized zone separating wealthy Mesa Verde residents in the north from mostly poor Latinos on the city's west side. Placentia Avenue, south of Adams Avenue, north of Estancia High School.

Best Historic Adobe Near a Gay Cruising Spot Diego Sepúlveda Adobe. Some historians call this the Sepúlveda Adobe; others refer to it as Estancia Adobe. And the dates it was built vary from circa 1820 to 1868. But all agree the California State Historical Landmark was erected as a station for Indian cattle herders for the Mission San Juan Capistrano and that it eventually fell into the hands of land baron Don Diego Sepúlveda and then the Segerstroms, who in 1963 donated the adobe and five acres of property surrounding it to the city as a memorial to early settlers. There's also no denying that the nearby Estancia Park men's restroom has become a hookup spot for gay men—and undercover cops trying to catch them going all George Michael. Estancia Park, 1900 Adams Ave., Costa Mesa.

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