The Great Divide - Lands End

LAND'S END | Shawn Hubler on O.C.'s idiosyncrasies


The Great Divide

Sensing a thaw in the Cold War between O.C. and L.A.

I’ve been driving up to Los Angeles a lot lately. The neighbors pity me.

“L.A. again?” they gasp, as if to say, “More time in the gulag?”

I appreciate their compassion. It complements the way L.A. people gently furrow their brows when I say I live in Orange County. “Really?” they murmur politely. Then there’s a long pause in which I can see them wondering if I’m a birther. This is so entertaining, it almost makes up for the billions of hours I spend on the freeway.

But the other day, I found myself wondering how much longer L.A. and O.C. can sustain their mutual disapproval. It started with a phone call from a friend in West Los Angeles.

“I’m developing a real affection for Orange County,” my pal said, unable to conceal his amazement. In so many ways, he marveled, Orange County is turning out to be surprisingly stand-up.

For one thing, it’s now the one place in Southern California where you can attend a baseball game without a police escort. Plus, Orange County has great public television—something L.A. can’t say since KCET Channel 28 stopped carrying PBS programs and sold its studio to Scientologists. Who knew my friend’s beloved “NewsHour” one day would be brought to him from behind the Orange Curtain? Such developments are making him rethink all sorts of assumptions. Maybe O.C. is more public spirited than the People’s Republic of Santa Monica imagines.

“I hate to say it,” he admitted, “but maybe I was prejudiced.”

Them’s not the fightin’ words you usually hear ’round these parts. Southern California may seem open-minded, but don’t be fooled. That’s just the face we show the tourists. Truth is, Southern Californians have incredibly fixed opinions about one another. And we’d go to the mat for them mano a mano if we all didn’t have to drive an hour and a half each way to do it.

But the freeway is a drag, so we practice avoidance. This is how it has been for generations. O.C. is the red state and L.A. is the blue state and everything else is desert or ocean. If you aren’t sure where you belong, you drive around until you find your people. Then, with a good guard gate and a little planning, you need never have an uncomfortable interaction. Your children will marry their own kind, no one will contradict you at a cocktail party, and the rest of the metropolis will stay in your heart as it was when you last saw it, sometime in the middle of the Reagan administration. Which can be relaxing.

The problem is, things change here, sometimes right out from under you. You might go on vacation and come home to a whole new stereotype. Get off at the wrong exit and discover that Greater Los Angeles is way past ’60s political correctness, and O.C. is way more about tech than conservative wingnuts.

“Who put that office park in the chaparral?” you’ll wonder. “When did that artisan bakery show up in the ’hood? Why does that public television station keep showing footage of L. Ron Hubbard?” If you haven’t kept up, there’s just you and your preconceptions. Which aren’t relaxing. I know kids from gated communities who won't go to the movies anywhere but those near The Shops at Mission Viejo. Children, life shouldn’t be that frightening.

As my friend said: We’re prejudiced. Even against ourselves sometimes. But calling ourselves out on it? You don’t hear that every day.

That’s why my friend’s remark piqued my interest. It’s a shout-out from one tribe to the other, a sign that the Cold War might be thawing. It’s hard to be a hater among people who like you. Besides, does the same sun not shine equally on Tustin and Topanga? Is the price of gas not a bummer on both the 91 and the 60? Do not “Los Angeles” and “Anaheim” both bedeck the name of our (better) Angels?

Write if your SoCal preconceptions have softened lately. I’ll pass it on if I ever get off this #%@ freeway.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.

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  1. Jeni Hill Ertmer posted on 06/23/2011 04:25 PM
    Here I am again, reaching out across those 3,000 (give or take one or two) miles from central PA to California to tell you -once again -how much I enjoyed this post. Not that I can compare life in the fast lane here (do we even have one?) to the Freeways of sunny California but I can see a bit of a comparison in the issues -or stereotypes -people tend to develop. Case in point here being seen in the church of which I am a member in good old Lanse, PA -which as anyone from this region will attest, Lanse is the upscale suburb of those two blighted villages, Grassflat and Winburne, with Kylertown being a close runner to Lanse in the upper-crust qualifications.
    Our church though, as I like to explain to every new pastor to our parish, is still somewhat divided based on the two churches that used to exist in Grassflat 50 plus years ago when those two churches merged. However, with that merger, the people who had originally belonged to the church we all then used, always sat on the right side of the building with the folks who had belonged originally to the "lower" church sitting on the left side. And today, 50 years later, in the current church we now have after merging with the Lanse church, you can frequently tell which church in Grassflat was the one in which many members originally came from based on where they will sit now, Sunday after Sunday -right or left side, ya know! Even my children and because my grandkids will learn the affinity for one side over the other from where their parents -and I -sit, will most likely follow that guidepost. Yep! Sometimes those things are hard and fast and really difficult to break free from them. I know cause the only time I sit on the right hand side in our church -or any other church for that matter -is if I am attending a wedding and am considered a friend of the groom or his family.
    Peace -and keep writing these great pieces!
    Jeni Hill Ertmer
  2. Former OC resident posted on 06/27/2011 08:45 PM
    Orange County is still a very bland place, and now it's even more built-up in places like Seal Beach, San Clemente, Irvine, or in between Newport and Laguna. It's sad to see those hillsides being built on. Every inch of land is being taken. (It's the same mistake LA made - covering every inch of space with malls, roads, and houses, and not leaving enough open space and parks. But at least in LA much of that development was interesting 1920s to 1950s architecture. OC's sprawl on the other hand is mostly 50s/60s suburban drabness, followed by hideous 1970s-1990s cookie-cutter developments.) Luckily the ocean itself is still there, and the beaches in OC are still fantastic. Recently downtown Fullerton and Orange have become moderately cool.... but that's about it.
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