No matter where you stand on the changing world, California is a place that represents approximately one out of every eight American citizens with a population surpassing 40 million. When you look south of Los Angeles to Orange County and San Diego, you’ll find regions that have literally made the most of life giving them lemons—and oranges, avocados, blackberries—by turning an agricultural community into a thriving metropolis.
Starting with humble beginnings, Southern California by every definition is an agricultural region built on dreams and hard work. Orange County is known for citrus orchards and ideal weather for just about anything to grow and thrive. Dating back to 1889, its orange groves have acted as the conduit to a budding economy. However, it was in 1904 when the Pacific Electric Railway expanded to Orange County that the region was declared a desired alternative for the Hollywood elite, and Orange County’s appeal grew.
Deemed a weekend retreat and getaway by celebrities, generating new income streams for locals and entrepreneurs willing to call Orange County home, the OC became a California destination. The 1920s were evidence that a short drive from Los Angeles, thanks to the implementation of Highway 101, was just what city folk needed for a quick reprieve. Once Interstate 5 was completed in 1954, the OC was referred to as a bedroom community for those who worked in aerospace and manufacturing, and in 1955, Disneyland opened to the public, adding to its growth.
From Santa Ana to San Clemente, the OC encompasses just 948 square miles of terrain, of which 157 square miles are covered in water, making it the smallest Southern California county. Tiny but mighty, the OC has overcome many obstacles, including filing for bankruptcy in 1994 after a $1.5 billion loss and investment fund meltdown. Still, by 1996, the county was already out of the red and back on track for economic growth.
Over the years, much has happened in Orange County, but some of the more notable (and playful) facts about the area are well worth learning about. For starters, some epic movies and bands have derived from the area. Some major Hollywood films were filmed in Crystal Cove, including Treasure Island (1934), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Beaches (1988). More recently, several blockbusters have been filmed in the OC, including Jerry McGuire (1996), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Hangover Part III (2013), and American Sniper (2014).
The county is home to Knott’s Berry Farm, the Anaheim Ducks, the FivePoint Amphitheater, and Blizzard Entertainment. It has so many hidden gems, including the art and LGBTQ communities of Laguna Beach; high-end shopping in Newport Beach; unique storefronts; art, skate, and surf spots in Huntington Beach; and so much more. And yes, there are still citrus orchards but not as many as the county’s namesake would suggest.
It’s said that orange and lemon trees were cultivated in the mission gardens in Baja, California, prior to 1739. When the Franciscans erected their first mission in San Diego in 1769, it’s probable that they took the seeds from blooming citrus trees in Baja. The first significant orange orchard planted in California was planted further north in Los Angeles in 1804 because the fathers of the mission prized citrus and believed their orange and lemons were solely intended for those at the missions. Frenchmen Jean Louis Vignes planted a second orchard in Mission San Gabriel, but at that time, the orchards were still cultivated for personal use. But soon the region looked to planting citrus trees with the intention of selling the fruit.
San Diego was incorporated as an official county of California on March 27, 1850, but it would be decades before the city found its footing. By 1890, San Diego wanted to be known as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, and in the 1920s, it became a thriving naval base and marine base. The US Navy built seven naval bases, making San Diego a pivotal training location during World War I. During World War II, the Pacific Parachute Company, founded by two African Americans, Howard “Skippy” Smith and actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson of the Jack Benny Show, manufactured military parachutes, contributing to the war effort. The company hired a diverse workforce and was awarded the National Negro Business League’s Spaulding Award in 1943. The manufacturing plant closed down in 1944, but the building still stands today.
San Diego hosted two World Fairs in 1915 and 1935 that inevitably led to what is now known as Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, both rich in history. Throughout those thriving years, philanthropy and ocean exploration had grown. Sister and brother Ellen and E.W. Scripps opened the world-renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 1903, and to this day it is one of the most recognized research and education institutions of oceanography.
During this time, fishermen realized that there was ample tuna in the surrounding waters, making San Diego the tuna capital of the world from 1910 to the 1970s. Over time, tuna fishing migrated to Mexico. The last cannery in the area closed in 1984, costing the area thousands of jobs, but it wasn’t in vain. The area is home to more than 70 large vessels and six-pack charters to choose from and is the world’s largest sport fishing fleet. With year-round fishing, San Diego is one of the best places in the world for catching tuna.
The local economy today is still fueled by the military, but as gentrification took over neighborhoods and the county went through many reinventions, it is to date one of the more diverse areas of California. With a largely Hispanic and Asian population, San Diego is a source of some genuinely exquisite food, is rich in cultural history, and is abundant in things to do.
San Diego is also a progressive place. In 2011, the city hosted the first Pride Parade in the nation to have openly gay active and retired military members marching. The next year, it honored gay rights activist Harvey Milk by naming a street after him, with the 2012 Pride Parade starting from the newly named street.
San Diego County is home to Sea World, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument, Seaport Village, Carlsbad Fields of Flowers, the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, Old Town, haunted cemeteries, and more. It is also the preferred spot of the neighborhood seals and sea lions that bask in the sun on the beaches of La Jolla Cove.