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Cities now coming full circle

Jim Tortolano

Jim Tortolano

By Jim Tortolano

Old is the newest trend in American living. I’m not talking about the steady march of baby boomers toward senior citizen’s discounts, but the popularity of living styles which recall a time gone by.

Last weekend my wife Marilyn and I attended a wedding and reception in downtown Orange and had our future as back to the past underlined. Approaching the revived central business district on Glassell Street from the south, we saw throngs of shoppers and diners filling the sidewalks leading up to the Plaza (called the “Orange Circle” by out-of-towners).

You could easily imagine in your mind that you had slipped through a time warp and were back in the Forties. Except for the Prius in front of you, of course …

The event was held in the Women’s Club of Orange, a modest but elegant facility built in 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the Yankees.

Polished hardwood floors, towering windows, a prim stage at one end … add to that the swing dance music being played and you’ve just lopped 70 years off the calendar.

The return of jitterbugging may be a bit of a fad, but the shift of our population away from sprawling shopping malls and cookie-cutter suburbs is well underway and here to stay, I believe. The “old forms” introduced in the Fifties, which turned their backs on the city, are being replaced by “new” ones which bring people closer together.

It was the post-World War II car culture that made cities less attractive. The car gave us more mobility, but also isolated us from each other. We became cocooned in our automobiles, drove miles and hours and work, even shopped in far-flung malls with oceans of sterile asphalt and concrete.

The American dream became ownership of two cars, a house with a backyard and patio. It wasn’t a bad dream, but it overlooked the virtues of exercise, tradition and community.

That’s all changing. Developers are building lofts and townhouses in central cities. Older homes near city centers are more valuable than ever. A well-kept Victorian home holds more allure than a mansion. Cafes and art galleries are drawing people to reviving downtowns.

Folks are discovering the joys of walking, of schmoozing, of going someplace where everybody knows your name. The retail industries are starting to recognize this, and are busy planning scaled-down, human-size versions of their stores.

Orange’s historic district is the classic example of the new-old trend. City fathers and mothers wisely resisted repeating the mistakes made by Anaheim, Garden Grove and other cities in gutting their downtowns. Now Orange is the “hot” place, and other communities are scrambling to catch up.

Certainly, the presence of the aggressively expanding Chapman University was a stroke of luck, but luck, as Branch Rickey said, is the residue of design. In this case, urban design which places people and footpaths ahead of parking lots and freeways.

  Jim Tortolano is editor of Orange County Tribune. A professor at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, he had a long career in newspapers in the Orange County area.

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