Interview with Phil Brigandi, Author of A Brief History of Orange, California: The Plaza City

AK: What first drew you to study and promote local history?

PB: I really can’t say . . . for me, local history has just always been interesting. I’ve guess I’ve just always wanted to know more about the world around me, and where I live. I thought fourth grade California history was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I was fortunate that when I was in high school, one of my teachers challenged me to do something with that interest. I’d always wanted to be a writer, and now I had something to write about. I never expected to make a living at it, but I have (more or less) ever since I got out of college.

AK: What was your research process for this book?

PB: In a way, I’ve been researching this book for 35 years. That’s how long I’ve been researching the history of Orange. I love reading through the old newspapers (even if you have to take some of what they say with a grain of salt), and the old timers in town have always been ready to answer my questions.


AK: What are a few of the persistent myths surrounding Orange’s early days?

PB: The one I’ve been trying to beat down for years is the old story that Orange got its name in a poker game. That’s nothing but an old wives tale (you’ll even find the same story told for several other towns). The story doesn’t even appear in print until 1930 – almost 60 years later – and even then it’s only repeated as folklore.

In the same way, most everyone assumes that Orange County was named for all the orange groves in the early days. But in fact, when the name was first proposed in 1872, there wasn’t a single orange grove in the area. But “orange” had a lush, semi-tropical ring to it, and caught on quick. That’s probably why Orange was named Orange – to grab a piece of that image.


AK: Is there a place or event that you miss from the Orange of your youth?

PB: I do kind of miss the old May Festival parade. Every town needs one little hometown parade, and most everybody got to be in the May Festival parade at least once (I marched with the DeMolay around 1975).

AK: What do you think is one of the most striking changes in Orange following post-war development?

PB: That’s easy . . . we went from 10,000 people in 1950 to 100,000 by 1985. The neighborhood I grew up in was on the east side of town in the 1960s. Now Orange stretches miles further up into the foothills.


AK: What is the significance of the Plaza?

PB: The Plaza (please don’t call it a “circle”) is unique in many ways. It gives downtown a very different feel, with trees and flowers in the center of town, instead of just cars and asphalt. In the old days, the Plaza was the physical center of Orange; all the stores, churches, and schools – even most of the residential neighborhoods – were all within a few blocks. Even today, it remains the symbolic center of Orange, a reminder of our small town origins.

AK: How is the City of Orange characteristic of, or different from, other Orange County communities?

PB: Orange has managed to hold on to its image as a quiet little town. It isn’t anymore, but many people still think of Orange that way. I think that’s because much of Orange has held on to that sense of small town community – and that includes a sense of history. I meet people all the time who are quick to bad mouth Orange County, but when they hear I’m from Orange . . . oh, that’s different.

AK: Does Orange County have an identity that is distinct from perceptions of Southern California?

PB: I’d go even further . . . I think Orange County has an identity that is distinct from many peoples’ perception of Orange County. The Orange County I grew up in – and live in today – bears no relation to the slick, upscale image you see on television. Orange County is much more middle class, much more diverse, and frankly a much nicer place to live than that.

AK: What advice would you give someone interested in preserving their community history?

PB: It’s never too late to start. You can moan about all the historic buildings that have been torn down, or all the old timers who have passed away, but if you start researching today, you’ll be saving stories that would have otherwise have been lost. When it comes to local history, the glass is always half full.

As for the research itself, the best local history always comes from a combination of primary sources (things written at the time) and the memories of old timers. From the documents, you get the dates and details; from the old timers, you get the color and the connections.

I guess the other thing I’d say to someone just getting started is, try to take things in small bites. Find a story worth telling and tell it – the big, sweeping overviews can come later.

 For more about Phil Brigandi and Orange County history, visit Phil’s website.

Phil Brigandi’s A Brief History of Orange, California: The Plaza City is available from The History Press and local bookstores.

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