This Southern California county voted Democrat in 2016, the first time since FDR. A majority still registers Republican, but the gap has narrowed. Since I first arrived here, in the late 1980s, many things have changed. For one thing the county is more diverse, with nearly one in three foreign-born. The population altogether has doubled, and, thankfully, there’s more to do as a result — to go along with the natural beauty and reliably therapeutic weather. Yes, we have more traffic now, too. Pesky people…
Today one in every hundred Americans resides in Orange County. One out of ninety works here. This runs counter to popular impression, but Orange County, measured by its density of more than 3,400 people per square mile, has become highly urbanized, that is, at least by American standards. It’s the 6th most urban county in the country; it’s the 2nd most urban in California. Only San Francisco County, with boundaries co-terminus with the same-named city, has a higher population density. Orange County today thus has assets, deficits, prospects and problems similar to those of any U. S. urban center.
People’s perceptions understandably are influenced by what they see in the media. TV and movies might have you thinking that California has mainly a handful of “company town” type employers: agriculture, entertainment, education and research, technology and tourist-serving venues. Those are big, certainly. However, and with all respect to Rust Belt boosters, the U. S. county with the most manufacturing jobs today is… Los Angeles County. Things are not always, are rarely, as they seem.
For example, and despite Angelenos’ disparaging jokes about life “behind the Orange curtain,” the OC now offers a vibrant cultural life, more so than anyone could have imagined, even just 30 years ago…with one notable exception being my old boss, the late Henry Segerstrom. He was the visionary behind South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. (okay, I know, it’s still not LA…) Henry, a farmer-turned real estate developer, practiced what he preached concerning quality, and understood the private and public benefits of pursuing what he saw as his “enlightened self-interest.”
One small step today in pursuing our enlightened self-interest would be to recognize that when amidst great wealth there’s close to one of five children living in poverty, it’s a recipe for trouble down the line. Also — to realize that when we spend so much time behind the wheel, it takes a toll on productivity, also on our physical and mental well being. On both counts the admonition to “pay now or pay later” comes to mind.
It’s time Orange County, while it’s matured beautifully by many important measures, grows up and deals with its systemic challenges. It’s time to let go of the bygone days, of the scent of orange blossoms in the air, and tackle head-on contemporary urban problems that, if not addressed effectively, will despoil the quality of life here as surely as urban run-off from the mountains to the sea pollutes the water at our beaches.
This remains a good place to live, work and raise a family. We’re lucky to have mostly “first world” problems. But complacency is neither smart nor soulful. It’s not enough to be merely grateful for what we have, and to feel relief we don’t face the sort of horrific problems we see in the news of far-away places. We have unfinished business here, right in our own backyard.
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Stop, Go, Murder