Land’s End: Uphipping Fullerton

How the capital of uncool got all organic and craft beery

Everyone has a path not taken, a parallel history in a place that might have been. Some imagine how life might have turned out had they taken that job in Rome or Manhattan. I’m no different: Three times in my life, I was almost from Fullerton.

I can admit this now. These days, Fullerton is hot, and not just in the meteorological context. Like much of North County, it has become a hipster draw with artisan food, craft breweries, bike sharing, organic gardens, Metrolink, and indie-vinyl music producers.

Not long ago, a real estate blogger included Fullerton among the nation’s Top 10 Snobbiest Mid-Sized Cities—along with Pasadena, Eugene, Ore., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—a distinction buttressed with data on the education level of its residents and numerous performing arts venues. Fullerton, the budding Silver Lake of Orange County!

Believe me, it was not always the case.

Once, saying you wanted to live in Fullerton was—well, who said that? Admitting this meant you were irrevocably square. Moving there said either that you’d fled L.A. in terror, or that you agreed that then-Rep. William E. Dannemeyer really struck a blow for heterosexuality by reading graphic descriptions of gay sex acts into the Congressional Record. 

Fullerton was old-school suburbia, the antithesis of forward-looking South County. Put it this way: After the 1965 Watts riots, my husband’s grandparents moved there from L.A.

Yet the first time we went house hunting, we couldn’t stop ogling Fullerton’s leafy avenues. Later, in our 40s and looking for a move-up house to go with a job promotion, we nearly made an offer on a half-acre ranch house before we caught ourselves.

Still later, after two of our best friends bought there, we fantasized about moving next door, like Millie and Jerry on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Over cocktails in the backyard, or floating in their pool on their buoyant pool chairs, we willfully ignored their tales about neighbors who kept trying to recruit them into Christian men’s groups, and local politicians who wanted the U.S. out of the U.N.

Then the century turned and we all moved elsewhere. And that, we thought, was the end of our parallel history in Fullerton.

Not long ago, though, one of our kids got a job in Irvine. Thrilled by not having to move back in with her parents, she announced she’d found a rental in a nearby town. It had old hardwood floors and a communal garden. A hipster coffeehouse around the corner. And all sorts of interesting ethnic restaurants.

When she gave us the address from the Craigslist ad, I called the cops; I thought she was being defrauded. Lady, they said, you obviously haven’t visited North County lately.

When we went to see her, so proud in her vintage apartment, it looked familiar—same leafy streets, same bungalows and ranch homes. All that had changed was the capacity for imagination.

“Fullerton is so cool,” she announced—words from a parallel universe that I never thought I would hear in my lifetime. “There’s just so much history.”

Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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