Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Five things I like about Newport Beach (but three things not so much)

So far, I have divided much of my life between UK and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Now for the first time I am spending time on the West Coast – Orange County to be precise. Its pretty much ground zero for affluent republicanism, but still, in many ways I’m feeling really lucky, in fact privileged, to be here.

See what I mean?

Been dealing with a bit of family bovva, from which we are all now recovering, and there are few better places for recovery than Orange County, CA, or, as we say over here, the OC.

For starters, there’s the weather. It’s almost perfect – around 21 C or, as we say over here, about 70 degrees. There is “June Gloom” at the moment, which means seasonal cloudiness, which is fine by me as it keeps the temperature down.

But mostly its like Nairobi – fine, cool-to-warm and sunny, with no humidity, and I find myself muttering each morning, with Isak Dinneson, “Oh no, not another f**king perfect day”. Except that I’m not bored, in the slightest.

Secondly there is the friendliness. People here find it much easier to talk to strangers, even easier than New Yorkers do. It’s very refreshing, and when in Rome I find myself able to do as they do. Surprising, and very nice.

Thirdly there’s the retail therapy. This place is built for shopping. Honestly, it feels like Stepford Wives on wheels, not to mention steroids. Socking great six lane roads, I mean highways, with additional left and right turning lanes, and women (mostly) in SUVs, loads of them, cruising along at the mandatory 40 mph, going to get their stuff (at least in my imagination). 

For me its not so much the retail therapy itself, I haven't been doing much of that, but how easy it is to get around.

Everywhere you want to go is easy to turn into, easy to park and easy to get out of, once you understand all the signage, of which there is much.  Its a completely different driving culture to UK - the lanes are not so much about speed as about exit - its all about being in the right lane for the next turn you want to make, and the one after that. 

It all makes moving around generally very easy (provided you have a car), which has its charms, after the congestion of UK (if I don't think of all the petrol, I mean gas, we are burning off, or the scandal, in this day and age, when we know what we know about carbon emissions, of the almost complete absence of public transport).

And there are acres and acres of car-parks, or as we say over here, parking lots. And they are all completely free.   

South Coast Mall, Costa Mesa, CA.  Orange County Archive

It's sad though.  Newport Beach is mainly built around a natural harbour, with all its islands and inlets  rationalised and now encrusted with mansions, slipways and yachts.

 Newport Harbor from the Air, by Kenjet

This used to be the estuary of the Santa Ana river, which in the early 1900s was diverted, sheathed in concrete and now debouches about half a mile to the north, as you can just see in the photo, while the former wetlands are given over to more productive uses - high-end services, dense  and mainly unattractive but nonetheless extremely costly housing and, as I say, acres of highway and parking lot.

That was quite a little land-grab from the collective commons!

Which brings me to my top favourite thing about Newport Beach: a little piece of land that was not stolen away.

In the midst of all this concrete and conspicuous consumption is an oasis called Castaways Park, which is a conservation area for native species.  It is on a bluff,  and has a striking view over yacht and mansion, highway and inlet.  This little sanctuary (25 tiny acres in all) is the object of my daily walk, and the fourth really good thing about Newport Beach, and the one I like best of all.  Check it out.

The park is adjacent to another small ecological preserve, this time the immediate margins of Back Bay which were saved from development by a huge struggle in the 60s and 70s, during which the land, already beleaguered by development, was wrested from the rapacious Irvine Company and assigned to public ownership   Thank goodness for that.  

Back Bay, Newport Beach, From Castaways Park

 Back Bay, Newport Beach

Back Bay, Newport Beach

And the fifth good thing is the ocean itself, which is totally lovely, especially the beaches. Swooping down the Pacific Coast Highway (or as we say over here, PCH ) listening to the great Ira Glass and “This American Life”,   on my way to a meeting in Laguna Beach, can’t be bad! Walking on the cliffs above Crystal Cove is also totally wonderful.

 Crystal Cove: sand, sea and millions of birds.  by Zelkova

Pacific Coast Highway, Near Crystal Cove

On the downside, in addition to the gross over-development of the place, and directly related to it, in Newport Beach I feel distinctly odd doing my favourite thing – walking. Its been said before, but here the car is king, and the pedestrian a rare bird, unless you are poor or jogging, or moi.

Secondly,  on the downside, and deeply shocking considering the wealth around here, there is no re-cycling of rubbish, (or, as we say over here, trash), unless you make a call to the Office of Sanitation with a specific request. I kid you not: no re-cycling in this day and age! And when you think of all the shopping that’s going on …..  my mind is boggling.

And right now a third major downside is that it’s virtually Wimbledon-free (except for a few brief bursts of that most perfect American icon, John Isner) and that’s driving me totally nuts, especially in the second week.

But still, I'm feeling lucky to be here, and mostly that's down to the weather, and the  lovely, generous , welcoming people that I have met, and the tiny miracle of serenity, Castaways Park.

The view inland from Castaways Park

Cycling in Castaways Park

I have to thank Nimisha Prasanth for all but two of the pictures in this posting.  She posts on Flickr as pookal (Flowers).  She is a wonderful photographer who has captured Castaways Park and its surroundings as I see them, and I love her for that.

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