Aliso Viejo

AV has a history that can be summed up on the back of a matchbook—maybe on a single match: founded within the past, I don't know, decade or so, it has few amenities you'd call quintessential. Try this at home: visit the city website ( and click on “visitors.” That'll take you to a list of categories. Click on “entertainment.” I'll wait. See what that got you? A list of homeowners associations. We can surely do better than that. So here we go:

Photo by Sam Morales

Best Reason to Visit Soka University of America. This is one of Orange County's great treasures: a university campus that looks like Thomas Jefferson taking on the Italian city of Siena after becoming a Buddhist. Soka is, in fact, a Buddhist-backed university, and you can see that in the perfect blend of buildings and landscape: the serried ranks of trees along an immense pond outside the main Founders Hall—a building that looks right out of the University of Virginia; the Italianate fountain spitting streams of water; the Sienese-influenced meadow outside the main library; the nearby ponds—serene, tranquil. The whole place overlooks the second-best reason to come to AV: the 4,000-acre Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. The school's not cheap ($18K for tuition, about another $8K for mandatory room and board), but it's intimate—student population of about 400 with a capacity for three times that. The students come from all over the world, and those I've spoken with clearly have the smarts (and capital) to go elsewhere. “I just feel like this is the most beautiful spot on earth,” said one. He's right. There are amazing views all over the campus: I stood at one archway looking up a set of granite stairs leading to a tiny courtyard; beyond that, I could see stairs leading to a second courtyard—like an M.C. Escher rendering if Escher didn't hate life. Don't miss the immense statue of Gandhi hiking out of an orange grove; there's something powerfully symbolic in that. From the 5, take Oso Parkway toward the ocean. Oso becomes Pacific Park. Turn left on Wood Canyon Drive. The campus is one mile up on the right side.

Third Best Reason Please don't tell the Weekly staffers who wrote the section on Laguna Niguel that they totally missed the National Archives N Records Administration—Pacific Region, also known as the Chet Holifield Federal Building, better known as the Ziggurat. What's a ziggurat? What's a Chet Holifield? A ziggurat is a pyramid with receding terraces. The famous (perhaps mythical) hanging gardens of Babylon, circa 600 B.C.E.? Ziggurats with plants! And so the Ziggurat of Laguna Niguel—quite close to Aliso Viejo—is an amazing exercise in Babylonian architecture rising inexplicably amidst the dusty San Joaquin Foothills. Or almost inexplicably: the Ziggurat was designed in the late 1960s by William L. Pereira N Associates (of UC Irvine and Planet of the Apes fame). The odd style makes even more sense when you learn that Rockwell International commissioned the building; fattened on Vietnam-era Cold War contracts, Rockwell could apparently conduct its death-dealing work only in a building originally designed to convey the pharaohs and satraps of old into the afterlife. But when Nixon slashed the budget for space exploration (I mean, following the moon landing of 1969, what else was there for an American aerospace firm but contracts for killing people?), Rockwell tanked. (We'll pause to note the eerie parallel between the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel—itself a mirror of the myth of original sin replicated in architecture—and the vain attempt of men to achieve the status of God.) The feds bought the Ziggurat from Rockwell; rumor is the purchase was a bailout to a company that Nixon and others deemed essential to national security. Why name it for Chet Holifield? Chet—born Chester Earl Holifield in Graves County, Kentucky—was a Democrat from Montebello. He served in Congress from 1943 to 1975 and (this is really weird) died of pneumonia just a few months before the Weekly began. Okay, not weird. Except: A Democrat? Born and raised in the South? From L.A. County? Here's the common thread: while in Congress, Holifield served on the Atomic Energy Commission; helped Truman assess the value of atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946; and was a congressional adviser to international conferences on atomic energy, nukes and disarmament. Also: one hell of a dresser. Reportedly. 24000 Avila Rd., Laguna Niguel, (949) 360-2626.

Best City Symbol The Bike Rack. Really, there are just a few reasons to visit AV, but one of them must be Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. One of the nation's best mountain-biking spots, it attracts the SUV crowd like it's made out of magnets. Seriously: every other car in AV looks antlered. This is the land of the Pathfinder, the Element, the Land Rover. Even the bikes have bike racks. In one million years, the kids in AV will be born with treaded tires where their feet would have been. Right next to Soka University of America.

Best Compensatory Gestures Extreme Trucks. I drive a crappy BMW sedan with a sunroof that leaks and A/C that smells like a hockey glove. I clearly got nothing on the guys with trucks, many of whom apparently end up lifting and jacking and boosting their rides at Extreme Trucks. Also headquartered in Aliso Viejo: Fastsize, the penis-enlargement guys. I'm just saying. 22972-B Pacific Park Dr., Aliso Viejo, (949) 215-9757.

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