The 5 Best Cities in Orange County for OC Newbies to Move To

Santa Ana: Where the OC Roller Girls roam...
Santa Ana: Where the OC Roller Girls roam...

From the letter bag:

My family and I are moving back to OC after 20 years. I've read your column and Facebook posts on and off for the few last years. My question is: between "freedom fries" in Villa Park and OC's KKK roots, where does one go to live in OC that is mildly to solidly progressive. We are a mixed family, gabacho and mexicana, and are planning on enrolling our chiquillos en the Spanish immersion schools in Lake Forest (Gates Elementary, etc.) Any ideas or suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks.

Also, this:

I just got a job in Irvine and am looking to move to the area from Monrovia. Where can I move that has a small town groovy feel and things like craft fairs and farmers markets?

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Gracias for the two of you for writing! OC's not all racist--just Villa Park. But your questions got me to thinking: if someone was moving to Orange County, where would we, as arbiters of all things truthiness in this wacky county, recommend they move to? I'm not talking about all the stuff realtors and South County types obsess over--I'm talking about pointing people to cities where they can experience a slice of OC life at its best, not its HOA-NIMBY worst. So behold a purely subjective list, written by someone who has lived here his entire life and covered it his entire professional career, who knows what he's talking about about 34 minutes a day--which just so happens to be how long it took me to write this post.

This is not to say we don't love all of OC, and some cities we adore didn't rank for reasons we'll explain. But the following represents good options for people with no prior Orange County experience, or--like the first letter writer--natives who are returning and want to experience a region that's no longer the place they ran kicking and screaming from years ago.

5. Lake Forest

Any town with Rick Warren can't be all that bad, right?
Any town with Rick Warren can't be all that bad, right?

Everyone in Irvine and south of the Y will snigger; let them. But the town once called El Toro is strategically placed so that residents can partake of South County, North County, and Laguna Beach easily. The anti-Mission Viejo.

Housing: Stock ranges from post-WWII tract homes to HOA hells, apartment complexes to gated communities, and all within reasonable (for OC, at least, and especially for South County) prices.

People: Lake Foresters don't have the richer-than-thou mentality endemic to nearly most of South County, and definitely not like Irvinites. It's also surprisingly cosmopolitan, with a large population of Afghans, Filipinos, and Latinos, and is the most underrated dining town in OC. Lots of nice Christians, too, as long as you're not a gay wanting to marry.

What the OC newbie will get: The most tolerable Stepford suburb experience we can recommend--and all OCers should try it once, if only to learn what NOT to aspire toward here.

Intangibles: If the Rapture ever comes, Saddleback Church will suddenly be empty, and we can turn it into one giant shrine to Baal.

4. Huntington Beach

Oh, yeah: this
Oh, yeah: this

Yes, there are bros. And skinheads. And corrupt politicians. And the city keeps electing Dana Rohrabacher (R-Friend of the Taliban) to Congress. But HB gets dismissed by OC far too often. In reality, it's the best coastal city to reasonably live in--not snobby like Newport, not too expensive (unless you squeeze 15 young folks into a rental cottage) like Seal Beach, not overpriced like Laguna and Dana Point, or not too far away like San Clemente (which we love, but any city that's closer to Camp Pendleton than Anaheim isn't exactly convenient for newcomers).

Housing: From the estates of Huntington Harbour to the Slater Slums, HB has it all. And, if all else fails, get yourself a VW Bus, park it on a secluded street, and you can live in it without too much hassle from the cops. Just stay away from riots...and the cops.

People: It's HB, bro. Unpretentious living is the name of the game. Mostly gabacho, but they're far nicer than their Newport Beach upper-crust cousins. Rallied to save the fire pits for all of us, so we owe them big-time--and yet they'll just ask for a six-pack in return.

What the OC newbie will get: The coastal life, because all OCers should experience it at one point in their lives.

Intangibles: The coast. The pier. Bolsa Chica. Tacos El Chavito. HB: consider this our peace offering for making so much fun of you over the years...and for making fun of you for years afterward.   3. Long Beach

And the biggest little airport in the world!
And the biggest little airport in the world!

With access to the coast, a progressive City Council, the Queen Mary, and a vibrant music scene, Long Beach is perhaps Orange County's finest...wait, Long Beach ain't OC? Then why do we cover it so much? Then why have so many OCers moved to Long Beach over the past 15 years? One word: the living is cheaper.

Housing: It's all about the housing here, far cheaper than almost all of OC, even Stanton. From the hood to Belmont Shores, Bixby Knolls to Little Phnom Penh, a plethora of housing options exist. Like to live in hipster apartments? Here's your heaven.

People: No attitude, except for the "We're not OC" attitude they'll pull on us even though most of them are OC natives or lived in OC when they first came to Southern California. But as neighbors, the Long Beacher is a good neighbor--even the cholos! And since they're still hurt that Los Angeles never offers them any love, they're always eager to please.

What the OC newbie will get: Affordable city living. Easy access to OC and LA.

Intangibles: Half of the OC Weekly staff over the years has lived in Long Beach at some point in their lives, so we must know what we're talking about, right?

2. Fullerton

Good guys out for good fun on a weekend night
Good guys out for good fun on a weekend night
LP Hastings

Heaven for college kids who want a fun time for the night, but also a great place to raise a family. Right on the 91 and 57, with easy access to the 5. Vibrant downtown. One hell of a horrible police department, sure, but if you want to live in a city run by good cops, Mayberry is thataway.

Housing: Mostly affordable, with a lot of single-family homes dating from the 1920s through the 1970s, and gorgeous ranch-style homes in the Sunny Hills neighborhood. Lot of those old homes are rental properties. Apartment complexes are mostly meh, but the city is starting to push for lofts, which'll mean even more young people moving into town.

People: Mostly laid back, with great diversity in the form of Koreans to the west, gabachos and Mexis everywhere else, the UN that is Cal State Fullerton, and of all age groups--back in the days, when Bally's or Jack LaLanne or whatever incarnation of a health club existed on the corner of Orangethorpe and Lemon, it was always awesome to see a bunch of multi-culti geezers take up the steam room in the morning and see the young guns come in the evening. Prone to eating and drinking well. Fiercely protective of their city, but not in a Tokers Town type of way...usually.

What the OC newbie will get: As great a combination of big-city living with a small-town feel in the county as Orange, but more affordable.

Intangibles: It was either Orange or Fullerton for this slot, and the deciding factor is the library: they library allow us to host a monthly lecture series there! Orange? Not a single call...   1. Santa Ana

This very corner is now Little Sparrow--GO GO GO!
This very corner is now Little Sparrow--GO GO GO!
From the Ben Dayhoe Collection...

That water tower that reads "Downtown Orange County"? Laughable--and they might as well paint the water tower to say "No Longer Just for Mexicans." Everyone in Orange County loves to trash SanTana, but refry this: out of the last 20 people I've met who have just moved to Orange County, 17 of them moved to SanTana. And these folks were from all around--Ventura, Indiana, LA, Mexico, San Francisco, San Diego--and of all ethnicities, all of them drawn in by the city's allure.

Housing: With more foreclosures than any other OC city during the Great Recession, muchos single-family homes remain on the market for dirt-cheap (for OC) prices. Sure, some of them were chopped up and turned into apartments for 17 people, but that's what a sledgehammer is for. Also available: overpriced lofts, charming rentals, baronial estates in Floral Park, and a helluva lot more apartments to come.

People: This country's going Mexican, so might as well learn from SanTana. That said, the Great Recession and the city's gentrification push has brought a chingo of young, multiculti folks into the city. The future of America is here, OC--and us, for that matter.

What the OC newbie will get: Affordability. Centrally located in OC. The future of Orange County. The beauty that is waking up to your neighbor's rooster, or to the collective city soundtrack that is La Rockola.

Intangibles: Taco trucks. Many, many taco trucks. So many taco trucks. Take THAT, Mission Viejo!

Email: Twitter: @gustavoarellano.

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