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The Fall of Orange County (and the Rise of That Other Place)

What is it about rankings that fascinates people so? The Times publishes the Nielsen TV ratings, but why does anybody outside Century City care? Do “Dynasty” fans call up “Matt Houston” fans to gloat?

Why does anyone want to know who Mr. Blackwell ranks as the worst-dressed women? Do you really care whether the movie you’re enjoying won Best Picture? It’s all so silly.

The exception is the “Places Rated Almanac,” which is “277 metropolitan areas ranked and compared for climate, housing, education, health, recreation, the arts, transportation, prosperity and crime.”

This is a great bunch of lists, first because they’re contained in a thick, expensive, credible-looking Rand McNally book full of charts and tables in small type, but mostly because they have allowed us Orange County residents to sneer at Los Angeles for four years.

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Do you remember when the book first came out in 1981? It was a godsend. After years of feeling inferior because we didn’t have enough three-star restaurants or our own ballet, this book told us that Anaheim-Santa Ana-Garden Grove--we’ll call it Orange County--ranked as the 13th most desirable metropolis in the entire nation!

And what of Los Angeles (or Los Angeles-Long Beach, as the book called it)? It was 47th and damned lucky to be that high. It ranked behind places like Milwaukee and Detroit and Albuquerque and barely beat out Schenectady. And I don’t think it would have beaten out Schenectady had it not been for an error, presumably typographical, on Page 117 under “Health Care and Environment.” It said of L.A., “Air Pollution: Insignificant.”

This was a handy book to keep around when superior L.A. friends came to visit. If they started gushing about that marvelous play at the Mark Taper or that great little restaurant in Westwood or how well the Dodgers were doing, you could bring out the book and casually browse through it as they were talking.

“Yes, yes, fine city, L.A.,” you’d say. “Such a hard-working Police Department, too. Look here: They’ve been able to keep crime down to the point that there are only 273 cities out of 277 that are better.”

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A passing reference to the section on freeway congestion and a mention of the list of best local economies--Orange County’s ranked 19th, L.A.'s 206th--and your friends would soon be shifting in their seats and wanting to talk about the latest movies.

But sad to say, like so many things in Orange County, that pleasure, too, is vanishing. There is a new edition of “Places Rated Almanac” just out, the first revision since 1981, and let’s hope those friends in L.A. don’t find out about it. I don’t know how we let this one get away, but now metropolitan Orange County is ranked 47th, not 13th. That might be bearable, except that L.A. now is up to 38th.

I combed that book trying to find out what went so wrong in Orange County during those four years.

Things were relatively unchanged in almost all categories. According to the new edition, owning a home still costs a fortune in Orange County ($14,953 a year, on the average), about $2,000 more than in L.A. Comparative crime rankings remained about the same. L.A. still had a huge edge in the really urban categories, like availability to the arts and advanced education, and had a slight edge in recreational opportunities. (We killed ‘em in the amusement park and professional sports categories, however.) Orange County had gained a little in the availability of specialized health care.

What apparently did us in was transportation. In 1981, you could still get around Orange County pretty well. True, the bus system was not all that great, the trains were only now-and-then and there was no rapid transit. But the freeways still moved a little, even during rush hours, so Orange County ranked 32nd in transportation. L.A., which could hardly get worse, ranked 109th.

Now, as anyone who drives to and from work knows, Orange County freeways and major streets have become jammed during those four years. L.A. is on the 1985 almanac’s “Most Congested Metro Areas” list--it has the most congested stretches of interstate highway in the nation--yet its average commuting time of 53 1/2 minutes is only 96 seconds longer than Orange County’s.

With that one advantage gone, Orange County’s superiority in transportation crumbled, in the computerized opinion of the almanac editors. Suddenly, Orange County’s transportation warts stuck out like, well, warts.

In L.A., according to the almanac, you’ll wait for a bus on the average of just under 14 minutes. In Orange County, you’d better bring a sleeping bag, for the wait averages almost 47 minutes. (The Orange County Transit District says it’s more like 35 to 40 minutes now.)

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Not only that, L.A. has more than twice the number of trains coming and going, and while its airport is listed as third busiest in the nation, it is not as saturated as Orange County’s.

Orange County’s ranking in transportation fell from 32nd to 236th and dragged the overall rating down with it.

Now I have to find a place to hide this new almanac so my L.A. friends won’t want to thumb through it.

Come to think of it, why worry? I won’t be seeing them for quite a while, anyway. They’ll never get past the Garden Grove Freeway.


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