California Fool’s Gold — Exploring La Habra

California Fool's Gold

The other day I got around to exploring the North Orange County suburb of La Habra. I was joined on the adventure by my friend, Matt, who’d long ago mentioned that should I ever get around to visiting La Habra, he’d like to come along.

La Habra.jpeg
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s map of La Habra

I like to think that La Habra’s motto, “a caring community,” is a passive-aggressive dig at some or all of its neighbors: East La Mirada, East Whittier, Fullerton, La Mirada, Rowland Heights, Whittier, and its nominal relative, La Habra Heights. That said, it probably is not — as most suburbs have similar mottos that are both uncontroversially positive and so vague that they border on meaninglessness.

Our exploration took place on a Friday — which it turns out is probably the worst day to visit La Habra as many of the sorts of places I normally visit during these adventures were closed. Although Apple‘s weather app (which relies on data from the Weather Channel) assured us that there was a zero percent chance of rain, it, in fact, rained for much of the morning. I love rain, mind you, but it has to be said that it seemed to put both a literal and figurative damper on the suburb.


HISTORY OF LA HABRA

La Habra’s name refers to a pass used by Spanish explorers of the Portola expedition. It also lends itself to the La Habra Valley, through which said explorers passed on 30 July 1769. Of course, before the Spanish, there were the Tongva, and before them, non-humans enjoyed free reign of the region for millions of years.

Pioneer Grove Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs in Pioneer Grove

Paleoindians lived in Southern California at least 13,000 years ago. Chumash culture arose around 9,000 BCE when some of the area’s non-human denizens would’ve included mountain lions, grizzly bears, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, lizards, squirrels, and many more species of animals. Coyote Creek, one of the principal tributaries of the San Gabriel River, would’ve been lined with a riparian woodland dominated by stately sycamores and handsome alders. The slopes of the Chino, Puente, and West Coyote Hills would’ve supported hearty chaparral shrubs and sprawling oak trees.

Around 1,500 BCE, the Tongva arrived in the valley from the Sonoran Desert. They established villages throughout what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties. Along the banks of Coyote Creek, the Tongva established the village of Nakaungna (also spelled Nakaunga, Nacaugna, and Nicaugna).

In 1542, explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Empire of Spain but it wasn’t until 1776, when the Spanish built Mission San Juan Capistrano about 60 kilometers south, that the area really began to fall under Spanish control.

In 1810, Mexico declared independence from Spain. In 1839, Mariano Reyes Roldan was granted 6,698 acres (27 km2) of land which he named Rancho Cañada de La Habra. In 1848, the US conquered about one-third of Mexico (including California), the result of the expansionist Mexican-American War. In 1850 California became the 39th state. In the 1860s, Lunenburg, Massachusetts-born trader Abel Stearns purchased Rancho La Habra.

Bell

The community of La Habra was founded by W.J. Cole. His brother-in-law, Zachary T. Coy, opened the first store in the community, Coy’s Store, which stood at the intersection of Central (now La Habra Boulevard) and Euclid. We visited the intersection which is marked by a plaque and replica bell of Camino Real.

City Hall
La Habra City Hall

Behind it is La Habra’s city hall. Across the street is the La Habra Library, La Habra Police Department (somewhat strangely, La Habra contracts with the Los Angeles County Fire Department), and La Habra Historical Museum. Cater-corner is the La Habra Community CenterI suppose, therefore, it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe this intersection — the birthplace of La Habra — as its civic center — and yet to characterize it as La Habra’s “downtown” seems like a stretch.

Birthplace Plaque.JPG


RESTAURANTS OF LA HABRA

Arthur's Coffee Shop
Arthur’s Coffee Shop

We began our visit to La Habra with breakfast. We decided on Arthur’s Coffee Shop, which despite its name is more of a full diner than it is a coffee house. Although the current building, apparently, was built in 1984, the menu claims it was established in 1959. The sign out front proclaims, more importantly, “GREATEST BREAKFAST IN TOWN” in a Western font. Having now eaten at exactly one La Habra restaurant, expressing my agreement with this claim seems a bit premature. However, I did enjoy my hearty breakfast. I also enjoyed the atmosphere, which, with its cluttered wood-paneled walls, reminded me of a middle American diner (although the illusion was somewhat shattered by the playlist of Coldplay, Cardigans, and more Coldplay instead of Cline, Cash, and Campbell).

Inside Arthur's

I’m not sure which of the following serve breakfast and whether or not any rival the breakfast served by Arthur’s but there are other La Habra restaurants, including Agrusa’s Italian Restaurant, Albert Mexican Food, Alex Taco Man, Antojitos El Buen Gusto, Arigatto Sushi, Asahi Sushi, Asian Bowl Express, Atomic Pizza, Baby’s Badass Burgers, Belly Bombz Food Truck, Black Bear Diner, Blackjack Pizzeria, Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza, BrewWings, Broken Rice Truck, Burning Buns, Burrito Brothers, California Sushi & Teriyaki, Casa Adelita, Castañedas, Chef C’s Smhokin Pot, Chicken Box, China Station, Chinatown Express, Chiva Torta, Chubbee Monkee Food Truck, Cilantros Tacos, Claro’s Italian Markets, The Clubhouse at Dad Miller Golf Course, The Coconut Truck, Continental Deli, Corner Bakery Cafe, Costco Food Court, The Crab Shack, Donuts & Deli, Dos Mexicanos Grill, El Rubios Jr Carniceria, The Falafel Factory, Farmer Boys, Gardens Bar and Grill La Habra, G Burger – La Habra, Gordolicious Tacos & Catering, Great Wall Mongolian BBQ, The Green Chile, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Hi BBQ Teriyaki, Higo Chicken Peruvian Cuisine, Higo Sushi, Ho-Ho China, Honey Baked Ham Company, Honeyfish Poke, Hungry Belly, India Restaurant La Habra, Joni Sandez y Su Grupo Norteño, Juan Pollo, King’s Burrito, Kip Barry’s Cabaret, La Barca De Jalisco Restaurant, La Habra Heights Cafe, La Perla Restaurant, La Perla Tapatia, La Ranchera Mexican Food, Lascari’s Italian Cucina, Laura’s Loaves & Goodies, Lety’s Mexican Food, Lily’s Restaurant, The Los Angeles Burger Company, Love Letter Pizza & Chicken, Mad Wolf Mongolian Barbecue, Meiga Sushi, Messi Burgers, The Mexican Taco, Mike’s Authentic Mexican Food, Mi Placita, Molca Salsa, Molcasalsa Mexican Food, Moros Cuban Restaurant, Mr G’s Kitchen, Mustache Mikes 365, My Pizza Pub, My Thai, Myung Ga Restaurant, Nekter Juice Bar, Northgate Market,Okamoto Kitchen, Orange Hawaiian BBQ, Orange House Take Out, Oriental Chinese Restaurant, Ostioneria Colima, Otto’s Pizza Stix, Pepper Shaker Restaurant, Phenomnom Truck, Pho Fula, Pho La Habra, Pho Ly Bun Bo Hue, Pizzami Buscemi, The Pizza Press, Poki Bomb La Habra, Poké Parlor, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Ricardo’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant, Rubio’s Coastal Grill, San Chon Bbq Restaurant, Scooters Italian Ice, Señor Campos, Shawarma and Falafel Palace Food Truck, Simpli Nutritious, Soboro Noodle, Sunrise Donuts & Bakery, T & S Burger, The Taco Cartel, Taco Nazo, Taco Ranchero Cater, Taqueria De Anda, Taqueria De Anda, Taqueria Mexico, Teddy’s Red Tacos, Teriyaki King, Thai Time Cuisine, 300 Bowl Coffee Shop, Tokyo Doggie Style, Tortas Ahogadas Los Primos, The Tropic Truck, Twin Dragon, Urban Espresso, Wendi’s Donuts, White Rabbit Truck, Wilson’s BBQ Rib Shack, Wok & Roll, Wok California, and Ye-Dang Korean Restaurant.


We next headed over to the birthplace of La Habra. It was there that La Habra’s first post office opened in 1896 (inside of Coy’s Store). Coy himself was the town’s first postmaster. He died unexpectedly in 1902, at which time his then-pregnant widow briefly assumed those duties before leaving town the following year. La Habra would incorporate decades later, on 20 January 1925.

Centro-Lions Park
Centro-Lions Park

It began to drizzle as Matt parked his car next to El Centro-Lions Park. Other parks in La Habra include La Bonita Park, Esteli Park, Portola Park, and Osornio Park, Vista del Valle Park, Vista Grande Park, Vista del Valle (Westridge) Park, Loma Norte Park, Oeste Park, San Miguel de Allende Park, Guadalupe Park, Las Lomas Park, Terraza Park, Descanso Park, Old Reservoir Park, Loma Verde Park, Brio Park, Montwood Park, Constitution Plaza, Leslie Park, Richard’s Park, and Corona Park.

Historical Museum.JPG

I walked to the entrance of the aforementioned La Habra Historical Museum. It has operated inside the town’s original library since its founding in 2010. It was difficult to find much information about it online and its blog hasn’t been updated in seven years. Luckily, there were a couple of men — apparently homeless — huddled in the doorway and sharing gulps from a gallon jug of milk or something that looked like it — perhaps makgeolli?

Library.JPG

One of the men informed me that the museum was closed and had been for some time. He went on to say that the museum would likely open in August at the earliest but that the La Habra Old Settlers Historical Society was considering whether or not to relocate, as the ongoing construction of a development of townhomes had only increased the isolation of the somewhat hidden museum.

Community Center.JPG

The drizzle had become a steady sprinkle and we decided to duck into the La Habra Community Center. I’d actually wanted to check out the La Habra Art Association Gallery but, of course, it was closed. There were historic photos of La Habra in the hallway, however, which were interesting to look at. The various meeting rooms were hosting seminars, a Wurlitzer-soundtracked bingo game, and elderly couples dancing to a recording Cole Porter‘s “Don’t Fence Me In.”

La Bonita Room
La Bonita Room at the La Habra Community Center

It got me wondering. Back in the 1980s, when I was a child, it seemed natural that senior citizens grooved to the likes of Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye, and Shep Fields because that was what had been popular when they were young. In 2019, however, someone who’s now 70 years old would’ve been a teenager when the Velvet Underground, Stooges, and David Bowie were making music so it surprises me somewhat that retirees are still shuffling to songs written in the swing, rather than soul era. Then again, La Habra is also home to the Model A Ford Club of America, an automobile which ceased production in 1931, so maybe that’s just how La Habrians roll.

La Habrians
Detail of a photo of early La Habrians in the La Habra Community Center

TRANSIT IN LA HABRA

I didn’t see any Model As on the road. In fact, about 95% of La Habrians seemed to favor late model offroad-ready SUVs in neutral shades over all other forms of mobility. The website Walkscore assigns it a walk score of 61/100, which when I went to school translated into a grade of “F” but, unfortunately, the California Department of Transportation doesn’t assign letter grades to transit agencies the way the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health does to restaurants. It’s safe, however, to say that La Habra remains decidedly car-dependant, despite a distant past in which there were, ironically, more dignified means of getting around.

Abandoned tracks
Abandoned train tracks

The Los Angeles Inter-Urban Electric Railway constructed the La Habra-Yorba Linda Line from 1906-1911. Pacific Electric Railway (PE) built the La Habra Depot in 1909 and extended service to Fullerton in 1917. Passenger service on both the La Habra-Yorba Linda Line and Fullerton Line was terminated on 22 January 1938. The lines had always been intended primarily to transport oranges from packing houses in Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Leffingwell, Whittier, and La Habra. When the citrus groves began to make way for tract homes, the lines became less useful and freight service ended in 1962.

Paved over tracks
They paved the railroad and put up a parking lot — train tracks emerging through the cracks

Train cars.JPG

For 81 years, La Habra has been served by no passenger trains or streetcars. The La Habra Express bus was launched in 2014 but terminated in the autumn of 2017. It is served by three of Orange County Transportation Authority‘s bus lines: 29, 129, and 143. La Habra is also served by Foothill Transit‘s 285 line. The city is small and flat and the weather generally mild and yet — thinly spread as it is across oceans of paved parking and wide streets — I don’t recall seeing a single soul walking, cycling, scooting, skating, or otherwise getting around without the aid of an automobile.

La Habra Theatre.JPG

Theatre interior.JPG

After checking out the abandoned rail right-of-way, Matt and I visited the old Pacific Electric depot, which in 1982 became home of the La Habra Community Theatre Co. In 2014, the Santa Ana-based Mysterium Theater company moved into the 135-seat theater, known as the La Habra Depot Theatre. It was still early in the day and not surprisingly, it was closed.

Children's Museum

Children's Museum entrance.JPG

Next door is The La Habra Children’s Museum, located inside the adjacent Union Pacific depot. Since 1977, it’s been home to the museum. The museum was open but, intended as it is for children, we didn’t venture inside. Instead, check out this video by my fellow explorers, Look Who’s Blogging.

Chicken Box Hyland Motel
Signage along Whittier Boulevard

Although La Habra was born on La Habra Boulevard (then known as Central Avenue), there is more charm to Whittier Boulevard.  Whittier runs all the way from the Los Angeles River to Brea and portions were formerly part of US Route 101. Parts of the road still carry El Camino Real, State Route 72, and California State Route 39. Metro is currently looking at extending a light rail line from its present terminus in East Los Angeles along Washington Boulevard through Commerce, Montebello, Pico-Rivera, West Whittier, Los Nietos, and Whittier, where the proposed Lambert Road Station would be built near the intersection of Washington and Whittier Boulevards. If I lived in La Habra, I’d advocate for it to continue down Whittier through my suburb but it’s somewhat unlikely to do so, even if the community wanted it to, as Metro is a Los Angeles County authority and has yet to extend into neighboring counties. The closest train stations, then, are Buena Park Station, Fullerton Station, and Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs Station, which are served by the multi-county commuter train agency, Metrolink. Both of those stations are located along Metrolink’s Orange County and 91/Perris Valley lines.


LA HABRA 300 BOWL

La Habra 300 Bowl from across the streetLa Habra 300 Bowl sign

We drove, though, like most La Habrians, and parked in front of La Habra 300 Bowl. La Habra Bowl is a Googie-style complex located on Whittier where, in 1958, J.W. and William Burch purchased the property for the purpose of building a bowling alley and the attached 300 Bowl Coffee Shop and 13th Frame Cocktail Lounge. It was there, in 1982, that Glenn Allison shot the first ever perfect 900.

La Habra 300 Bowl.JPG

La Habra 300 Bowl Cocktail Lounge.JPG

It’s still operated by the family, with William’s widow, Margaret, and their daughters Catherine and Andrea running the show. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Matt to get more coffee so that we’d have an excuse to luxuriate within the space-age coffee shop but we were both sufficiently caffeinated and not yet hungry after our large breakfasts at Arthur’s.

La Habra 300 Bowl Coffee Shop.JPG

Coffee shop interior.JPG


FESTIVALS AND CULTURE

There are several festivals which take place in La Habra. The La Habra Lions Club launched the annual Corn Festival in 1947. Events include a cute baby contest, a “doggie costume” contest, an apple pie baking contest, and the “aw shucks” corn-eating contest. It is billed, sometimes, as the “World-Famous Corn Festival” and international readers — I’d love to know whether anyone, where you live, has heard of this world-famous festival devoted to corn (or “maize” as you more likely know it).

There’s also the Citrus Fair (inaugurated in 2010), the Tamale Festival (inaugurated in 2014), the pre-Easter Eggstravaganza, Concert in the Park, North Orange County Gem & Mineral Society‘s annual Gem and Mineral Show, Me & My Guy Enchanted Ball (fka the Daddy/Daughter Dance), the Santa Cause Car and Bike Show, Movies in the Park, and something cryptically known as “Friendship Train Whistle.”


BICYCLING IN LA HABRA

Coyote Creek
Section of Coyote Creek with paved banks but fenced off to prohibit public use

I had one last place on my wishlist to visit — Coyote Creek and the Coyote Creek Bicycle Path which runs along a section of its banks. Bicycle infrastructure in La Habra is, it has to be said, shameful. Walkscore gives La Habra a bike score of 46/100. There are short, disconnected fragments of dedicated bicycle lanes along short stretches of Lambert Road, Palm Street, and Whittier Boulevard. There are a couple of recreational bike trails located within Guadalupe Park and La Bonita Park. Coyote Creek, long channelized, still flows through the communities of Brea, Buena Park, Fullerton, La Habra, and La Palma and although it seems within the capabilities of wealthy 21st century societies to install bicycle paths along all such waterways, there are currently only 15 kilometers of the creek so blessed — a section which stretches from Imperial Highway in La Habra to La Mirada Boulevard in Buena Park.

There is just one bicycle shop serving La Habra, it seems — La Habra Cyclery, established in 1973. It’s owned by Jim Karnes and appears to enjoy a very good reputation.


BARS AND NIGHTLIFE OF LA HABRA

Duffy's.JPG

It was no longer raining by the time we left Coyote Creek and we figured, as it was almost noon, that it was time to check out a bar. I was curious about The Leaky Tiki, mainly on account of its winning name. Reviews suggested that there was nothing remotely tiki about the place, which only made me more curious. The sign for Hedz or Tales Sports Bar was also compelling but we ultimately decided on Duffy’s Bar.

Duffy's interior

From the outside, Duffy’s looks a bit Bavarian. The front entrance looks like it’s made from the top (or bottom) of a giant barrel. The sign above proclaims, somewhat incongruously, “LOTTO COCKTAILS POOL” and the posted hours informed us that by noon, it had already been open for six hours. Inside we were greeted by our buoyant bartender, Maribel, who it turned out had previously tended bar at Limerick’s, in Alhambra, near Matt’s home. The sole patron, a man in a mariner’s cap who looked a bit like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, chatted for a bit about neighborhood exploration and suggested that when I visit Whittier, I check out the Golde Brique Inn. Maribel put in a word for Sharky’s and Al’s Cocktails — across the street from one another in San Gabriel.

Modelo
Pint of Modelo and a partially obscured Beat poet

Other bars in La Habra include Cask & Hammer, The Cat & Custard Cup, Gardens Bar and Grill La Habra, Las Vegas Bar, Shotz Bar & Kitchen, Squires Inn, and 13th Frame. La Habra is also home to a noraebang called The Plus+ Karaoke.

Taps.JPG

It was still early but we didn’t want to get drunk and — as there’s no train — we wanted even less to get caught in the crush of rush hour, where traffic grinds to a halt and souls are reduced to dust. When I boarded the Atlantic Station in East Los Angeles — the closed Metro train stop — I cursed the fact that Metro never builds restrooms in their stations (which is why people relieve themselves on their elevators and stairways) and held my breath as we lurched toward Union Station.


FURTHER READING

From 1916-1966, La Habra was served by the La Habra Star. It was followed by the Daily Star-Progress, which in 1992, was once again published as La Habra Star, albeit from offices in Anaheim. It ended its run in 2001. Today the La Habra Chamber of Commerce and the City of La Habra co-produce a free quarterly magazine, Life in La Habra. There’s also the La Habra Journal, which apparently serves both La Habra and La Habra Heights (and is, I believe, published in the latter).

One of La Habra’s most celebrated authors was historian Esther R. Cramer, who was born in La Habra in 1927, who mostly wrote about La Habra, and who died there in 2012. In 1969, she published La Habra: The Pass Through the Hills. It was followed by The Alpha Beta Story (1973), about grocery store chain established in Pomona which existed from 1915 until 1995 (when it merged with Ralph’s). Her 1996 work, A Bell In the Barrancawas a children’s book about La Habra. In 2001, as part of the Orange County Pioneer Council, she produced La Habra pioneers, an oral history project involving long-time residents of La Habra. She was also a founding member of the Orange County Historical Commission and the La Habra Historical Museum Old Settlers Historical Society.


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.
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