California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Costa Mesa, The Standing Ovation Capital of Orange County

California Fool's Gold
Vintage Costa Mesa Postcard
This episode is about Cosa Mesa, which I journeyed to with photographer Jeanine Michelle and filmmaker Diana Ward
 Map of Costa Mesa
 Pendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Map of Costa Mesa
Costa Mesa is a city in North Orange County, California, located on the coastal tableland above Newport Bay. It’s neighbored by Santa Ana to the north, Irvine to the northeast, Newport Beach to the south, Huntington Beach to the west, and Fountain Valley to the northwest. Originally an agricultural community, nowadays Costa Mesa’s economy is primarily based on retail, commerce and light manufacturing. There are a good deal of cultural events and centers for an Orange County town and Costa Mesa proclaims itself to be Orange County’s “Center of the Arts.” Nonetheless, it’s still Orange County and the biggest money maker is a mall; the largest employer is Mickey D’s.
Costa Mesa Skyline
Costa Mesa skyline

Though long thought of as a purely suburban County, there are pockets of urbanization that have arisen since the 1970s, especially in North Orange County. Costa Mesa is probably the most urbanized city in Orange County. The two tallest skyscrapers in Orange County are located in Costa Mesa. The oldest, and third tallest building in the city is the 17-story Park Tower, completed in 1979. The tallest skyscraper in the city and county is the 21-story Center Tower, completed in 1985. It’s part of South Coast Plaza. The second tallest building in the county and city is Plaza Tower, built in 1992 and also part of South Coast Plaza. Other skyscrapers include the two 15-story Comamerica Bank Tower and Tower (both part of Two Town Center), the17-story Westin South Coast Plaza, the 12-story Metro Center I and Metro Center II (both completed in 1988), and the South Coast Metro Building (completed in 1989).
The southwestern portion of the city is somewhat industrial in character. The area hemmed in by the 405, 55 and 73 is known as SOBECASouth on Bristol, Entertainment, Culture and Arts. The shopping area includes “anti-malls” The Lab and The Camp. Other areas include the Theater & Arts District, the Metro Center, the City Center and the neighborhoods of Cliff Haven and Santa Ana Heights.
The duck-less Metro Center Duck Pond


Eric Brightwell giving a speech in Costa Mesa, 2010
Yours truly giving a speech about Costa Mesa
The current population is roughly 69% white, 7% Asian and 32% of Latino. Although a minority, the Latino contingent reflects the browning of formerly lily white Orange County and some have exaggeratedly nicknamed the town “Costa Mexico.”
Diego Sepúlveda Adobe
Costa Mesa Estancia under normal conditions                     
Diego Sepúlveda Adobe under restoration
Costa Mesa Estancia on the day of our visit
At the time of the Spaniards’ arrival, the area now making up Costa Mesa was home to the Acagchemem, Payomkowishum and Tongva. The Spanish, of course, didn’t care and in 1801 granted a large portion of land to Jose Antonio Yorba. His Rancho San Antonio included the lands of modern day Costa Mesa, as well as Olive, Orange, Villa Park, Santa Ana, Tustin and Newport Beach. It was primarily used as pasture and in 1823, work on an estancia for vaqueros was completed. The structure later became known as the Diego Sepúlveda Adobe (after one of the inhabitants) aka the Costa Mesa Estancia aka the Santa Ana Estancia. It still stands and serves as a museum although it’s undergoing restoration currently.
Fairview, Harper and Paularino

Fairview Hot Springs, 1909
Fairview Hot Springs, 1909

The land was later part of Mexico until the US’s imperialist victory in the Mexican-American War. After newly becoming part of the US, settlers built the town of Fairview near the modern day intersection of Harbor and Adams. There was a church, a schoolhouse and a 25-room hotel to accommodate tourists visiting the nearby sulfur hot springs. Fairview was devastated in 1889 when a storm and flood ravaged the town and it soon reverted to farmland.

Harper-Fairview Grammar Schoo, 1920s
Harper-Fairview Grammar School c. 1920

To Fairview’s south, another town, Harper, had sprung up. It continued to function until three years of droughts at the dawn of the new century drove most families, including the Harpers, off the mesa. It slowly began to recover around 1908, when a new school opened at 17th and Newport. Harper also acquired its first commercial building, Ozment General Store, at the northeast corner of 18th and Newport. In 1910, the first commercial apple orchards were planted by George Waterman and George Huntington. A second schoolhouse (this one with two rooms!) opened at 17th and Orange. Tragedy again befell the residents of the mesa in 1916 when the Santa Ana River flooded the town.Paularino was a sleepy lima bean farming community to the northeast. I don’t have much info about it… and it doesn’t seem like people thought it was worth photographing.

Costa Mesa 

Perhaps wanting to signal a new start, on May 11th, 1920, Harper changed its name to Costa Mesa. Its character stayed relatively the same, however, with most of the economy based around growing sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, strawberries and apples. Eight years later, in 1928, Costa Mesans effectively fought off arch rival Santa Ana’s attempts to annex them. The discovery of oil brought new growth to the city and everything was hunky dory until the depression struck. Industries folded and Costa Mesa’s only bank closed.

Earthquake aftermath, Newport Blvd, Costa Mesa, 1933
Earthquake aftermath, Newport Blvd, 1933
Then, in 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake damaged most of what remained. Costa Mesa soldiered on, getting a second start after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the government hastily established the Santa Ana Army Base nearby and the population of Costa Mesa grew considerably.
Ed Hardy fan in Costa Mesa
Ed Hardy fan in Ed Hardy’s hometown

In 1945, Iowa-born Don Ed Hardy and his family also moved to Costa Mesa. He later went on to become a tattoo artist and founded one of the most loathed clothing brands (outside Orange County).

The Grant Boys
In 1949, Paul Clinton and Edward “Buddy” Grant opened Grants Surplus, which offered “1001 things you can’t use” to a town otherwise mostly defined by feed barns, hardware stores and pharmacies. It is still in business today as Grant Boys.

On June 29th, 1953, Costa Mesa was incorporated as a city. The rest of the decade was fairly uneventful until scandal rocked the suburb when Miss Costa Mesa of 1958 was stripped of her grown after it came to light that she was a divorcee. The ‘60s were predictably more tumultuous.

In 1960, a more serious crime occurred when a man pretending to be interested in buying 29-year-old Nancy Haas’ house on Princeton Drive shot her to death (five times) in front of her three-year-old daughter, Heidi. Heidi’s testimony lead to the capture and conviction of Robert Elton Edwards, a 19-year-old from Modesto.

Newport Blvd. at 18th St., Costa Mesa, circa 1963.jpeg
Newport Blvd. at 18th St. circa 1963
Four years later, a group of rowdy teenagers were involved in a fatal car chase when 19-year-old Costa Mesan Michael Madison saw his girlfriend, 16-year-old Sheri Lilly, in a car with 18-year-old Newport Beach resident Jerry Dale Kennedy. The incident ended with Kennedy being thrown from his car and dying.

In 1964, a group of theater students started Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory. Leading the way were two San Francisco Stage College graduates, David Emmes and Martin Benson, who opened their theater in Costa Mesa, convinced that there was a future for theater in Orange County. In 1972, South Coast Repertory launched a new branch, Actor’s Mime Theater. Sadly, that didn’t last (I’m not joking – I like pantomime) but the SCR is still active.

Newport Ave, Costa Mesa, circa 1966
Newport Ave in the mid-1960s
In 1965, Chuck Smith, a leading figure in the “Jesus Movement,” established Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. It started with 25 members and now boasts 1,400. They church is responsible for radio broadcasts, and many live Christian music recordings on CD and DVD.

South Coast Plaza

South Coast Plaza

Costa Mesa was forever changed in March, 1967, when Harold T. Segerstrom and his cousin Henry T. Segerstrom opened South Coast Plaza on the site of their family’s lima bean field. Most malls that old have long since been demolished but South Coast Plaza just continues to grow and generates more than one billion dollars a year. In fact, it’s estimate that if the female Vietnamese population used the money they spend at the plaza and instead sent it as remittances to Vietnam that it would elevate that country’s economy to that of Dubai.

In more Christian Costa Mesa news, in 1970, Richard T. Coughlin established Costa Mesa’s All-American Boys Chorus. Coughlin had been moved to Costa Mesa from Boston by the pedophile-enabling Catholic Church after he was accused there of molesting young boys. Later, five members of the chorus would make the same accusations but Coughlin swore to the Almighty that he couldn’t remember anything.

Praise the Lord with the Crouches

In even more creepy Christian news, in 1973, the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) began. Its headquarters are in Costa Mesa and it is the largest and most popular Christian network in the world. Occasionally TBN’s promotes “prosperity gospel,” promising viewers that if they give cash to the network, they will in turn be rewarded with money. If you’ve ever lived without cable and tried to pretend that there are more than enough free stations, TBN is the one where the pink-haired harlot, Jan Crouch, joins her husband, Paul, on the set of Praise the Lord where they sit on lavish thrones of gold.

In case you’re the average Christian who’s never bothered cracking open a Bible, here are some of Jesus’s teachings on wealth.

  • “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
  • “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
  • “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

In other unholy news from the 1970s, in 1978, Costa Mesa witnessed the formation of the Nazi Lowriders gang.

Some say that Costa Mesa got back on track in the 1980s. In 1981, the Costa Mesa Historical Society’s Museum and Headquarters opened. In 1986, the aforementioned Orange County Performing Arts Center opened. However, not everyone was happy with the increasing cultural opportunities. A complaint was made by crotchety Costa Mesa resident John Feeney when he realized that South Coast Repertory was using city money to produce flyers supporting the NEA, which a conservative reactionary claimed amounted to “religious bigotry.” Chester priests vs. Robert Mapplethorpe

In 1991, another shopping center, Triangle Square, opened in downtown Costa Mesa although over the years it’s more like a ghostmall. That same year, game manufacturer Zono Incorporated was founded in Costa Mesa. They’re best known as the developer of Mr. Bones for the Sega Saturn. In 1995, The OC Weekly was founded in Costa Mesa and has somehow avoided completely going to s**t like the LA Weekly which has since been taken over by soulless – and worse, clueless — Arizona-based media mega corporation New Times Media.

Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall

In 2006, The Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened in Town Center.

From 1976 till 1981, the most famous music venue in Costa Mesa was Jerry Roach’s punk venue, Cuckoo’s Nest. The Vandals wrote a song about the infamous club, “Pat Brown.” The club also claimed to be the birthplace of slamdancing and was documented in the 1981 film Urban Struggle.Bands that were formed and musicians who were born in Costa Mesa include Bill Madden, Cowboy Buddha, Measles, Naked Soul, The Pressure and Xployt (aka Joe Public). Supernova was another band from Costa Mesa, who even wrote a song called “Costa Mesa Hates Me.”

Movies & TV

Not a whole lot of films have taken place in Costa Mesa. Reflecting the punk rock past, Suburbia was filmed there, as was In the Shadow of the Stars.
Orange Coast College entrance, Harbor Blvd, Costa Mesa, circa 1960.jpeg
Orange Coast College entrance circa 1960
Perhaps the first film shot in Costa Mesa was the Vincent Price-narrated, Chuck Roberts-starring recruitment film, Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. Other films and television programs with scenes shot in Costa Mesa include Arizona, Convict, Big Momma’s House 2 (the Deloitte & Touche Building), Entering the Student Body, Final Assignment, Hierarchy, Laguna Beach, The Newest Pledge, Quest for the Holy Ale, Stratagem, The Omega Code, The Sopranos and Time Changer.
Paulo Drive-In, Costa Mesa
Paulo Drive-In, Costa Mesa
There used to be a big drive-in theater too, the Paulo, but it was torn down in the name of progress.

Costa Mesa is home to the Theater & Arts District, a performing and visual arts campus. It included the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC), Segerstrom Center for the Arts (which comprises the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and Samueli Theater), as well as the aforementioned South Coast Repertory.

Richard Sera's Connector

Inside Richard Sera's Connector
Richard Sera’s Connector, which you can step inside of (and make noise)
There’s also a large Richard Sera sculpture on the grounds, Connector, as well as works by Jean Dubuffet, Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Charles O. Perry and Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario.


1929 Cretors popcorn wagon, Orange County Fairgrounds, Oct. 18, 1950
Orange County Fairgrounds, 1950
 Costa Mesa is home to the Orange County Fairgrounds which hosts the Orange County Fair each July. The fairgrounds were also featured in Tom Hanks’s directorial debut, That Thing You Do!. Regularly scheduled events in Costa Mesa include the New Years Eve Block Party at OC Fair and Event Center, Howl-idays at the Costa Mesa Bark Park and Food Truck Fare Thursdays. For fans of libido-destroying plastic surgery or atrocity exhibitions, there’s the Costa Mesa Streetlow Show Bikini Contest — google at your own risk. Back in 1938, residents started the annual Carnival of the Scarecrows. By its second year, it drew 10,000 attendees. It ended with the US’ entry into World War II. Maybe they should bring that back.

Other Stuff To Do

Isamu Noguchi Gardens
Hidden behind some nondescript buildings is the California Scenario, a tranquil sculpture garden with trees, a stream, cacti, fountains and rocks.
Fairview Park, Costa Mesa

There are also three libraries and 26 parks. The largest park is Fairview Regional, on the city’s western edge. It’s a large park along the Santa Ana River with trails and the Talbert Nature Preserve.

Ceceline Godsoe's Makeshift Memorial in Fairview Regional Park October 2001
In 2001, Fairview was the site of the grisly and senseless murder of sixteen-year-old Ceceline Godsoe on a hiking trail by a deeply-disturbed high school friend who was ultimately arrested after fleeing to Mexico and being arrested for beating his wife.

Talbert Nature Preserve

Park next to Talbert Nature Preserve

When we visited, it was a happier place. We saw Audobon Cottontails and a Red Tailed Hawk. The park is also inhabited by American Goldfinches, American Kestrels, California Groundsquirrels, Gopher Snakes, Southern Alligator Lizards, Western Fence Lizards, Western Flycatchers, and Western Kingbirds.
Costa Mesa Pain Center
And no stop to Costa Mesa is complete without a visit to the Pain Center, which includes Massage parlors, salons, a suit store and a liquor store to help make a visitor feel better.
Henry's, Costa Mesa, 1960s
Henry’s, hot spot in the 1960s
Plums Costa Mesa
Plums, the hot spot now

Especially prominent cuisines in Costa Mesa are Italian and Mexican but there’s a pretty good variety of cuisine represented across the city. I think that the first place I ever went to was a tragi-romantic meal at Scott’s a couple of years ago. On the day of our visit, the crew ate at Plums, which was excellent. There’s also Anjin, Anotello Ristorante, Arriba Baja Grill, Boudin SF, Bristol Palms, Champagne French Bakery Cafe, Corner Office Grill, Darya Fine Persian Cuisine, Diho Siam Restaurant, Finbars Italian KitchenDurty Nelly’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, Fresca’s Mexican Grill, Garduno’s Ristorante Italiano, The Gypsy Den Café, Habana, Hamamori Restaurant Lounge, Hemingway’s, Jerry’s Famous DeliKarl Strauss Brewery, Kura Sushi, La Cave, Lawry’s Carvery, Le Chateau Restaurant, Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, Marché Moderne, Marrakesh, May Garden Chinese Restaurant, Memphis Café, Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant & Bar, Nello Cucina, Newport Rib Company, Oki Doki, Old Vine Café, 118 Degrees, Onotria Wine Country CuisineOrchid Cuisine Grill & BarPark Privé, Pinot Provence, Quattro Caffé, Ristorante Mamma Gina, Royal Khyber Fine Indian Cuisine, Skosh Monahan’s Steakhouse and Irish Pub, Soprano’s Restaurant, Sutra Lounge, TerraNova, La Terraza Mexican Grill and BarValhalla TableWahoo’s Fish TacoWestside Bar & GrillZ’Tejas and Zipangu.


To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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