Dominating a City: Aesthetics and History in Irvine, California
AUTHOR: Dylan Z. Siegel  |  DATE: March 9, 2022
I. Unending Present

From the 1970s to early 1980s, the California State University of Fullerton’s Oral History Program conducted dozens of oral histories with Japanese Americans, who at some point had lived in and around Orange County, California. Yoshida Yoshiki, born in Huntington Beach, California in 1916, was part of a family of itinerant Japanese farm hands, which he referred to as “tramp labor.”1 In 1919, he recalls that his family moved to Irvine, and that at the time of the interview in 1983, that first home they moved into on Culver Dr., a major arterial road that runs through the city, was still standing. This was odd, I thought, since, to my knowledge, nearly all of the buildings around Irvine were built sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s, or later, with the approval of the city’s largest landlord, the Irvine Company. In the twenty-plus years of growing up in Irvine, I did not recall ever seeing anything remotely historical around town. The Irvine that I grew up in, was the planned city, and there seemed to be hardly any traces of anything other than the planned communities and the city’s domination by the Irvine Company.
    The city of Irvine and small parts of surrounding cities have been drawn from the Irvine Ranch, a piece of land named after the first James Irvine (1827-1886). The land area which eventually would make up that Irvine Ranch was originally the land of the Atilililipish and Acjachemen native American peoples, later known as Gabrielinos and Juanenos respectively; at least two other groups inhabited this land.2 Through the expedition of Gaspar de Portola in the middle 18th century, the local Santiago Creek and Santa Ana rivers were named. Through a series of land grant requests, the land that would eventually be central Orange County passed into the hands of Spanish explorers and then Mexican rancheros. Finally, this land, cobbled together from three separate named ranches under Spanish and Mexican grants, was bought by James Irvine, eventually becoming the Irvine Ranch.3 Like the Mexican and Spanish rancheros had done, Irvine used the land to herd sheep and cattle, but eventually transitioned to predominantly agriculture.4 Tenant farming became common, with the Irvine Company the singular land owner in the area; Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican people came to the Irvine Ranch for work as farmers or ancillary farm help, creating their own small communities in the process. Around the time of World War Two, the Japanese in the county were either arrested and taken to Enemy Alien Camps, or relocated to incarceration camps for families; the war also brought the El Toro military base and Lighter-Than-Air military facility which existed on the edges of the Irvine Ranch. The postwar period brought a new type of development: the heavily planned “New Town” of Irvine was built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shortly after the University of California, Irvine campus.
    The aesthetically rigid and planned nature of the city of Irvine has prevented most traces of the past from existing in just about any form around the city—whether it is historical buildings or plaques acknowledging a formerly historical space or boundary. Irvine, smack in the middle of Orange County, Southern California, appears to be a timeless place, planned as a postwar “New Town,” explicitly meant to counteract the postwar dissatisfaction with so-called “urban sprawl.”5 The Irvine “villages,” which are much like subdivisions, are each precisely managed in aesthetics, with scaffolding covenants that govern things like front door colors, and so on. The color beige reigns over these villages, planned and constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. Other developments and apartment complexes stand with pastiche-colored stucco walls. The landmarks are few, mostly limited to the University of California, the under-developed Orange County Great Park, the handful of large green, sprawling parks, and large shopping centers and outdoor malls.
    Since the Irvine Company’s master plan and their power as the main landholder in the city has largely determined the city’s form and aesthetics, they have left little room for alternative or vernacular expressions of, well, anything. In fact, the predictability and uniformity are a draw for many residents. However, the predictability, aesthetic uniformity, and control has obliterated any sense of past, leaving only an unending present, with no alternative interpretations to the city’s existence. Where traces of the past might exist in some physical form under most circumstances in other cities, in Irvine, they barely exist. It seems that Irvine, as a well-managed, “balanced,” and purely pleasant place, has existed in perpetuity. Where is the past?

II. Histories of Irvine

Some have paid attention to Irvine and the Irvine Ranch’s past, although most histories leave something to be desired. They are each somewhat anachronistic in their own ways. All devote large volumes of reading to the Irvine Family and other main figures of Irvine’s past, coming across mostly as “Great Man” styles of histories. Robert Glass Cleland’s The Irvine Ranch, is the most holistic, credible, and valuable work of the histories on this area. Histories that come after The Irvine Ranch, appear to lean heavily into the shadow of Cleland’s work. They remain quite credulous of their sources and unfortunately function like teleological hagiographies where Irvine as a suburban product is apotheosis. Thorny subjects are briefly mentioned but not exactly confronted. Once there is a mention of the American Civil War and how Irvine’s partners found some success in shipping their harvested wool with the cotton shortage.6 There is mention of both a strike and the fact of Japanese internment and discrimination, but little interrogation of the Irvine Company’s role in either during the late 1930s and early 1940s.7 Readers are left wanting much more information about how Irvine and the Irvine Company intertwined or reacted to those continental events. In all, like the city’s past, there is much room for improvement and elucidation.
    Robert Glass Cleland’s The Irvine Ranch, written initially in 1952 and republished, is the work of the historian of southern California. Cleland’s work is largely a narrative of the main figures and institutions of Irvine’s history. Indeed, it appears from reading other works about Irvine, that Cleland is responsible for much of the detail and narrative construction about the pre-suburb city and ranch. Cleland does spend a significant amount of time on the Spaniards, ranchos, and pre-Irvine ownership of the land. How ownership of these lands was created and maintained made up a significant part of his narration of the pre-Irvine period, especially since governing authorities lived far from the land in places like Los Angeles and further north. Afterwards, Cleland does slip into a wild west trope, taking a whole chapter to describe the man hunt of an outlaw murderer, before finally bringing James Irvine and his early partners into the picture. Like the other histories mentioned here, there are next to no citations, although in lengthy quotes from primary texts, Cleland typically will note the publication and date if possible. Perhaps most crucially, the work was written long before the implementation or even ideation of Irvine as a planned New Town. And for that reason, it is valuable for understanding the Irvine Ranch as something other than an inevitable transformation into suburbia.
    Rex Oppenheimer and Elizabeth Cox’s Foundation of Integrity: A History of Irvine Ranch, published in 2002, mostly adopts a praiseworthy attitude towards the city and the Irvine family. Much of it seems to have drawn directly from Cleland. At times, like mentioned above, entanglements between the Ranch and wider phenomenon are mentioned in passing, but unfortunately left without interrogation. At other times the book seems a bit too credulous of the positive aspects of the Irvine Company. The text quotes a William Croddy, described as a close associate of James Irvine II. Croddy praised Irvine as a person of solid character who was responsible for the success of several people, for example “help[ing] them acquire land through orange grove leases.” But in the same breath, the authors write that “Croddy…never worked directly for [Irvine] because the people who worked for Irvine weren’t paid well.”8 In fact, taken together with other observations and descriptions in Foundation of Integrity, the second Irvine patriarch appears more like a sour miser and incisive businessman than the fine person that the authors describe.9 Whereas Cleland jumps around thematically while maintaining some linearity, this work is very straight forward. However, the text thoughtfully expands the history of Irvine beyond what Cleland included, providing some tantalizing details. For example, Oppenheimer and Cox mention the location of a 7,500-year-old archeological site in the hills, extant grain storage houses from the pre-city Irvine Company, and allude to some of the work and migration of communities like the Japanese on the Irvine Ranch.10 Each of these brief notes present exceptional opportunities for new research paths.
    Finally, the Irvine Historical Society’s work also appears to lean heavily on Cleland. The historical society, existing in one of the Irvine Ranch’s old buildings as a gift from the Irvine Company, has created a series of PDFs chronicling phases of the Irvine Ranch’s history. While an important undertaking, the texts are very hagiographical and sometimes read like PR handouts. At times, these works seem to have fully borrowed from Cleland, summarizing his words with less lucidity. These texts are however quite attuned to individuals’ actions and personalities, and often take the time to describe the impact of those like Charles E. French, an early ranch manager on the Irvine Ranch. Unfortunately, these texts tend to echo the Irvine Company’s established perspective that it provides throughout its websites.

III. Dominating Irvine, Determining the Past

There are some extant “pasts” around the city of Irvine, although they mostly replicate the histories written about the city. The Katie Wheeler library branch in Irvine is a replica of a home that James Irvine II built at the beginning of the 20th century. Irvine had the home built after an earthquake shook San Francisco, his main residence, and he moved his family onto the ranch. The Irvine home suffered severe fire damage in the 1960s before being torn down, but was eventually rebuilt. The Irvine Historical Society’s headquarters, nestled next to a golf course, was part of one of James Irvine I’s original ranch buildings in the middle 19th century. There it houses a small museum dedicated to materials of Irvine’s history. And, a couple more obvious landmarks include the remaining lighter-than-air blimp hangars on the border of Irvine and Tustin, and the decommissioned El Toro Marine base bordering Lake Forest.
    The city also includes a few traces of the past in spaces like road names and mountain peaks. There are roads named Michelson, Myford, and Portola. Portola Parkway, presumably named for Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish explorer that traversed from southern to northern California in the 18th century. Myford Road for the third patriarch of the Irvine family. And, Michelson Drive for a physicist who conducted a speed of light measurement experiment on the Irvine Ranch in the 1920s. There are others. Temporally deeper below these roads, Portola Parkway and the Interstate 5 freeway were both initially native American foot trails.11 There is also a hilltop in the undeveloped canyons in the eastern part of the city, known as Flores Peak or Barton Mound after a fugitive murderer (Flores) and the sheriff that chased after him and was murdered (Barton).12 So, there are traces of the past around the city, if only tucked away or not immediately obvious in a day-to-day sense.
    But it is the aesthetics and architecture of the city that has most effectively covered the past from being more present. In Hiroshima Traces, Lisa Yoneyama argues that the gloomy atmosphere of the city of Hiroshima provoked by the memories of the atomic bombing, was extensively overwritten by a “bright and cheerful peace” in the 1980s.13 Through cheery events, pretty light arrangements in parts of the city, and things like riverboat tours, the city attempted to reforge its image as a cheerful place.14 As Yoneyama incisively describes, the “urban renewal” of Hiroshima was a method of “fashioning and containing, temporally and spatially” a certain type of memory in order to “encourage the uncritical consumption of Japan’s power and affluence.”15
    Something similar may be at work in Irvine’s case, albeit without such a towering role in world and national history. As a planned city, Irvine revolves mostly around shopping areas, its suburban subdivisions (“villages”), offices, and green space. But, because of the planned and controlled nature of every piece of development, there is little room for divergent or vernacular expressions of the city. In a word, the city’s suburbs, streets, shopping centers, and parks, mostly lack character. Long before businesses have moved into open real estate, the aesthetic is determined—typically some sort of rustic, beige series of shop fronts that look the same as a dozen other shopping centers around town. Shop signage must be approved by the landlord, the Irvine Company.16 There often exists a secondary or tertiary level of aesthetic control for residents. My parents live under the dictates of two HOAs—the Woodbridge Village Association and the Willowgrove HOA—one of which has the power to approve the color of your front door, or what type of awning you may assemble on your property.
    One could argue that the city does contain a wide variety of aesthetics and expression, in part because the “villages”—large, planned subdivisions—retain their own unique aesthetic and housing type mix.17 Indeed, Irvine may have succeeded on its own terms partially because of, rather than in spite of, the fact that apartment complexes, attached single-family homes, and detached single family homes could all exist side by side without complaint from homeowners.18 Each village typically hosts a slightly different foliage mix. Later developments in Irvine were also heavily “influenced by European models and great spaces in cities” according to an interview with an Irvine employee.19 It is true that the Irvine Company’s Tustin marketplace looks far different than Newport Coast’s Fashion Island. One’s buildings are tall, deep-adobe colors, seemingly stacked on one another, whereas the other is a more lowkey, muted boutique shopping mall. And certainly, the University of California, Irvine contains its own aesthetic language.
    But it is the control, planning, and enforced aesthetic repetition without divergence that squashes any other type of expression. This happens from the granular individual home level to the city-wide level. With these uniformities, closely controlled by the Irvine Company, geographic, aesthetic, and architectural anomalies become inexpressible or even inaccessible because of their inability to fit into the company’s master plan for the city. This suffocation extends to expressions of the past, which are naturally squeezed out from both everyday experience and abnormal leisure experiences, because they do not exist in the city’s toolkit of housing, shopping center, and green space. Where old buildings from the 1920s may have been left behind, acknowledging previous eras, the Irvine Company’s master plan imposes uniformity around the city. Where individuals may have come together to express a shared past outside of the Irvine Company’s history, there seems to have been little appetite for such an undertaking. Where the local history of the myriad of peoples who have worked and lived on this land could be taught, I have not heard of it in schools. Where the past exists in situ, it does so as an approved expression of the Irvine Company’s ideology of good planning—i.e. the Wheeler Library or Irvine Historical Society. As the Irvine Company’s Good Planning website argues, the “stewardship” of the land, or properly caring for the land, has been a constant since the era of Spanish and Mexican land grants. It was the Irvines and ultimately the Irvine Company that enacted this good planning and proper stewardship—the kind that lists no notable historical sites on its interactive map. The only narrative has been the Irvine Company’s narrative, enforced through aesthetics.
    Instead of planning and stewardship, we might consider control and domination a more fitting legacy of Irvine and the Irvine Company. As a rancher and agricultural family-business, the Irvines insisted on not just owning, but dominating the Irvine Ranch. Irvine refused to let the Southern Pacific Railroad pass through his Irvine Ranch from Los Angeles to San Diego, something which the few agricultural tenants at the time were optimistic about, because of its ability to connect them to agricultural markets.20 After legal entanglements, the railroads attempting to quietly build without permission, and Irvine tenants responding with guns in hand, the trustees of the Irvine Company in 1887 deeded a passage to the Santa Fe Railroad company from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.21 The Ranch itself has mostly remained intact since its coagulation in the 1860s, which has produced a unique expression of land control. With the exception of a nearly successful attempt to sell the entire Irvine Ranch, and small sales of edges of the Ranch, the Irvines and Irvine Company have maintained the land as a whole for a century and a half. That devotion to owning and controlling the land as a united whole has made possible the unique level of unification and control over Irvine as a planned city. Without that control and vision of Irvine as a planned city, the control of the city’s aesthetics and therefore its past, would likely be much more difficult.
    The pasts that do exist in the city and Irvine Ranch have great potential. The incorporation of the El Toro Marine Base, the blimp hangars, and a strong connection to the defense industry have not been amply explored. Ann Forsyth, writing about the planned nature of Irvine and other New Towns, mentions offhandedly that Irvine has benefitted from federal defense expenditures, but from my experience there seems to be little obvious vernacular knowledge about this fact.22 There is also a great potential for labor, farming, and migrant histories on the Irvine Ranch, particularly since native Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Chinese all worked as farm hands on Irvine Ranch lands at some point. Some of these, particularly Japanese immigrants, have also left indelible impacts on their communities, sometimes producing institutions like kendo halls or language schools.23 It is some wonder that the Irvine Company has not rushed to publicize these rich pasts that grew on their land—although, at heart, the Irvine Company is a real estate and management company.24
    Even with the unassailable aesthetic domination of the city, there are a couple ongoing efforts to rematerialize the past within the city and Irvine Ranch boundaries. The Crystal Cove Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps maintain the Crystal Cove beach, has posted signage in the park about “Cottage #34”, which was home to a Japanese language school for a nearby Japanese farming community. The cottage remains preserved. In response to the 3/11 disaster in Japan, Tanaka Farms, a local Japanese farming company has sponsored a project to show the locations of Japanese farmers on the west coast while raising money for victims of the disaster. And, most interestingly, California State University of Fullerton, in the 1970s to 1980s, sponsored a series of oral histories of Japanese Americans in Orange County, many of whom traversed the Irvine Ranch at some point in the prewar period. These contributions are inestimable.
    The city of Irvine simply needs more past in its present. With more aesthetic or architectural divergence, the city could produce a more unique sense of everyday life—one that acknowledges the variegated past produced not just by the Irvine Company, but by the thousands of individuals who passed through these ranch lands decades ago. It would bring a valuable measure of vibrance to a community largely devoted to raising children and consumers.


1. Yoshiki Yoshida, Interview With Yoshiki Yoshida for the Japanese American Oral History Project, interview by Alice Maxwell, trans. Yukiko Sato, November 19, 1983, 1, 2. Rex M Oppenheimer and Elizabeth Cox, Foundation of Integrity: A History of Irvine Ranch (Carlsbad, CA: Heritage Media Corp., 2002), 8; Native Land Digital, “Native Land Digital,”, accessed October 25, 2021, 3.Robert Glass Cleland, The Irvine Ranch (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1962), Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5; Oppenheimer and Cox, Foundation of Integrity, Chapter 1. 4. Cleland, The Irvine Ranch, chaps. 9, 10; Oppenheimer and Cox, Foundation of Integrity, chap. 3. 5. Ann Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia: The Planned Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and The Woodlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 70. 6. Oppenheimer and Cox, Foundation of Integrity, 20. 7. Oppenheimer and Cox, 73. 8. Oppenheimer and Cox, 62. 9. Oppenheimer and Cox, 20, 25. 10. Oppenheimer and Cox, 11, 36, 65. 11. Cleland, The Irvine Ranch, 9. 12. Cleland, chap. 6. 13. Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 44. 14. Yoneyama, chap. 1. 15. Yoneyama, 59 16. Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia, 258. 17. I continue to use the term “subdivision” for describing these villages, however, I suspect that the planners of the city would scoff at the use of that term. Forsyth describes their planning of the city as far more comprehensive, thoughtful, and unique, which expanded to include the road system. See Forsyth, 53–104. 18. Forsyth, 72–78. 19. Forsyth, 98. 20. Cleland, The Irvine Ranch, 92; Oppenheimer and Cox, Foundation of Integrity, 25. 21. Cleland, The Irvine Ranch, 94. 22. Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia, 89. 23. Yoshida, Interview With Yoshiki Yoshida for the Japanese American Oral History Project. 24. Of the oral histories I have read, only two directly commented on the Irvine Company’s behavior. Yoshida commented that the Irvine Company refused to let the Japanese working their land “put the house on the land, so they formed little villages where you can have the house…then you commuted to the fields.” On the other hand, Yamada described the Irvine Company as being generous and welcoming of Japanese before and after the war; “The Irvine Company said, [after the war] You can come back anytime you want…So there was no hostility at the Irvine Company.” See Yoshida, 11; Takeo Yamada, Interview With Takeo Yamada for the Japanese American Oral History Project, interview by Pat Morgan, March 26, 1973, 5–7,