If Costa Mesa didn't become its own city 60 years ago, the border between Newport Beach and Santa Ana might have been right around Wilson Street.
It's a theory that Art Goddard, lead volunteer at the Costa Mesa Historical Society, surmised Friday at the society's Anaheim Avenue headquarters, in the hours before the city began its three-day celebration to mark the 1953 cityhood milestone.
The historical society has been busy lately, fielding questions from interested parties as civic leaders commence a 60th birthday bash that's turned out to be much bigger than the one 10 years ago.
To Goddard, Costa Mesa's narrow incorporation success in 1953 amid the "annexation threats" from Santa Ana and Newport Beach demonstrates a self-determining character still seen decades later.
"That community spirit couldn't really be satisfied by annexation by Santa Ana or Newport Beach," Goddard said. "It was a little more independent than that."
At the time, those in favor of cityhood said that the change would give more local control and prevent things like oil drilling, while those against incorporation said taxes would go up.
Cityhood won — by about 400 votes. The initial city of Costa Mesa, mostly comprised of what had been known as the village of Harper around present-day downtown Costa Mesa, eventually got bigger through annexation efforts. It eventually combined the former communities of Paularino and Fairview and today is about 8,000 acres — "not even big enough to be a decent cattle ranch in Montana," Goddard said with a laugh.
Before cityhood, however, when Costa Mesa was unincorporated Orange County, the chamber of commerce played a big role.
"People did want local control. We know that from history. To fill the void, the chamber of commerce actually provided a lot of local governance," Goddard said. "They had a lot of committees for things that local government would do today."
He called Costa Mesa a consistently fiscally conservative city guided by pro-business sentiment.
The Segerstrom family, who founded South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, have been extremely influential on the city's development, Goddard said. Their acres of farmland — a portion of which remains off Fairview Road — would eventually be transformed into the selling place for designer handbags, the performance home of orchestras, hotels, high-rise business towers and fine dining.
South Coast Plaza — the city's primary source of tax revenue — could have been in Santa Ana, but Costa Mesa officials, including a city manager at the time, helped the city's case.
"I just think the Segerstroms felt the city of Costa Mesa was newer and younger," Goddard said. "It had less baggage than Santa Ana and would be better to work with in the long run. That is probably the crux of it right there, and out of that, South Coast Plaza is a result."
But could the leaders from those days have imagined the old Goat Hill to be the modern-day "City of the Arts," with a world-class shopping center, a bustling fine arts center, trendy shopping and restaurants, three freeways running through it and a population of more than 118,000?
"No," Goddard said quickly. "No one in their right mind could have guessed it. And the people who formed the city, on the inside track, they couldn't have guessed it, either."
One of those people is Jack Hammett, a Pearl Harbor survivor, former planning commissioner and mayor. The Mesa del Mar resident has lived in the same house for 53 years. The Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex, formerly known as The Farm, was named in his honor in 2012.
"We were just a burgeoning city," Hammett, 92, said. "It was fun to help build."
He remembered the nuts and bolts of improving infrastructure and development, from putting utilities underground, the building of the Costa Mesa Freeway and establishing the Harbor Boulevard car dealerships.
"We were working together for common goals for building a city within reason, and legally," Hammett said. "And we did it without a lot of public indebtedness."
"With a sense of satisfaction," Hammett added, "I'm happy to have been here."