Alot of people don't know this place exists," said Irwin Anisman, echoing a familiar refrain in the Orange County community of Rossmoor.
Indeed, Rossmoor at first glance seems too good to be true--a peaceful, tree-lined suburban idyll, a place where on a Saturday the neighborhood is alive with the shouts of kids playing soccer at parks and schools and where residents can be found trimming lawns and washing cars.
The American suburb as construed by Disney? Perhaps.
But this unincorporated community of 3,600 homes, situated at the confluence of the 405 and 605 freeways and adjacent to the cities of Los Alamitos and Seal Beach, is no fairy tale to the people who have been settling here since Rossmoor was founded in 1956.
Built by Ross Cortese, the same man responsible for nearby Leisure World, Rossmoor was billed at its pre-freeway inception as "Long Beach's biggest suburb."
But the town, whose street names reflect the founder's literary interests (Shakespeare, Baskerville and Coleridge are all in Rossmoor), has since grown to become a bedroom community for commuters to downtown Los Angeles and beyond.
The perks of living here, say residents, are compelling: Low crime rate. Good freeway access. Quiet streets. And, most especially, schools. Schools whose reputation extends beyond Rossmoor's boundaries.
"Someone was selling their home in Rossmoor, and I said, 'Gee, where's Rossmoor?' " recalled Anisman, who is retired now but who worked as an aerospace engineer when he moved here with his family in 1976 from Culver City.
Anisman bought a 1,600-square-foot home for $75,000 and was quickly impressed by the quality of schools for his two children, who were then in kindergarten and first grade.
"The thing that really sold us was the school system," he said. "People continue to flock here for that reason."
The quality of schools is a main reason that a home in Rossmoor can these days sell for more than $400,000. Part of the Los Alamitos School District, Rossmoor boasts four elementary schools within its boundaries, including Lee Elementary, whose principal, Jeanie Cash, was recognized last year as California's Distinguished Principal of the Year, an honor given out by the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals.
Rossmoor Elementary also garnered an award, being named a 1997 national Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education.
Teenagers attend highly regarded Los Alamitos High School, and some audition for acceptance at the Orange County School of Performing Arts to study music or drama. No wonder, then, that Rossmoor schools sometimes have a waiting list of those wanting to transfer from other districts.
The residents' faith in their local schools was evident when Rossmoor residents voted to tax themselves several years ago to refurbish their elementary schools. Self-imposed taxation--a concept that would seem anathema in today's political climate--has been imposed several times in Rossmoor to make up for Orange County's fiscal shortfalls.
Although they rely on the county for police and fire service, residents in Rossmoor have taxed themselves to pay for public parks and most recently to fix the brick wall that surrounds the community and gives it a subtle sense of exclusivity.
Damaged during the 1995 Northridge earthquake, the wall repair measure won a two-thirds majority of Rossmoor residents, who voted to tax themselves $24 a year per household to repair it.
"When we're behind our red brick wall, we feel isolated from the hubbub of urban life," said Mary Delavergn, 77, among those who pushed for the wall tax.
Delavergn is sitting at a breakfast table surrounded by her family--two daughters and a grandson. Taken together, they also comprise three generations of Rossmoor homeowners.
Theirs is the story of a family from Long Beach who, one by one, migrated to the same neighborhood.
Delavergn's older daughter, Dianne Jones, 59, is the family pioneer. Now a clerical worker at Rossmoor Elementary, Jones came first, moving to Rossmoor with her husband, Scott, an insurance broker, in 1967. The couple bought a 1,700-square-foot home for $32,500, a house in which they've since remodeled the kitchen and added a bar off the living room.
Next came Mary and Harry Delavergn, who bought a two-bedroom house with a pool in 1970 for $34,000.
Eight years later, the Delavergn's other daughter, Vicki Uehli, a redevelopment project manager for the city of Santa Ana, arrived with her husband, Mark, who has a lighting business.
Although they moved into a one-story 1,650-square-foot home similar to the Jones' house, the asking price had risen to $90,000.
Eric Jones, Dianne's son, completed the multi-generational migration this year, leaving his townhome in Garden Grove to buy a four-bedroom home for $335,000.
"The entire family is within five or six blocks," said Eric Jones, 30, who works for the stevedoring company Marine Terminals Corp. at the port of Los Angeles.
Asked why he and his wife, Trisha, a kindergarten teacher, chose Rossmoor, Jones talks about the kinds of things that brought his mother and father here three decades ago. Good schools, nice parks, wide streets.
Over the years, family get-togethers have tended to be held at grandma and grandpa's, because they have the pool. But Uehli jokes that her house has a unique feature, too--a shower door in front of the toilet. It's a design quirk you'll find in some of the older Rossmoor homes--bathrooms equipped with two shower doors, one for the shower, the other for the adjoining toilet.
One can only assume Rossmoor founder Cortese had maximum privacy on his mind when he included this feature in every home.
What Cortese perhaps didn't envision was the major tear-down renovations going on in the neighborhood. "New money" has come to Rossmoor and with it ambitions renovations, grandiose homes that have sprung up next to the more modest, gingerbread-looking houses built 40 years ago.
Brenda Gorman, a Realtor with Remax College Park Realty, said that of the 3,600 homes in Rossmoor only 25 or 30 are on the market.
She said higher-end homes in the community sell for from $350,000 to $700,000, on lots that can include large frontyards and pools.
Houses that back up onto the 605 Freeway or onto one of the boulevards, Katella or Los Alamitos, tend to sell for less than $300,000, she said.
But those homes are selling, too, she says, and they are selling mostly to families.
"I have sold maybe a house or two to someone who doesn't have children," Gorman said, adding that Rossmoor has benefited in the last few years from a new family influx.
It's a pattern that has led to the reopening of elementary schools, several of which closed in the 1980s, when the town found itself in a holding pattern between generations of homeowners.
"I am selling to kids I knew when they were going to school here," said Gorman, who has lived in Rossmoor for 28 years. "Now they have children."
For a community that's only about three square miles, Rossmoor has an impressive amount of greenery. Two parks, Rossmoor Park and Rush Park, offer plenty of space for soccer games; they also provide public tennis courts and playground areas.
It's at Rush Park that you'll find one of the more innovative fund-raising efforts by the community. An oval wall surrounds a playground area, the wall composed entirely of hand-painted tiles bearing the names of Rossmoor families.
The tiles were sold to residents at $125 apiece to pay for the playground. It's an art project-cum-civic beautification project that typifies the sentiment of longtime resident Kathy Richards, who was born here in 1959 to original Rossmoor homeowners and who, as an adult, decided to stay and raise children of her own.
"You know," she said, "it's almost like a 'Father Knows Best' neighborhood here."
Paul Brownfield is a Los Angeles freelance writer.