The Free-Sprited Eichlers of Fairhaven - Orange

These free-spirited Southern California Eichlers are in the midst of a renaissance tied to pride and camaraderie

fairhavenIn today's increasingly impersonal world, it's easy to imagine that all things—even good things, like the revival of a neighborhood—are caused by time and tide, and that an individual can have little impact.

Don't try that line on anybody living in Fairhaven, the first Joe Eichler neighborhood in Southern California and the first of three in the city of Orange.

Fairhaven, an enclave of about 140 houses built at the start of the 1960s, has undergone a renaissance over the past few years. Housing values are up, poorly remodeled homes are being restored, young families are moving back in, some neighbors are pushing for landmark designation, and neighborhood parties are back in business.

Carla Jacobs, a former realtor and longtime resident of the neighborhood, remembers when agents warned clients away from the Eichlers—no resale value, they said. David McDonald, who's lived here since 1988, remembers when Fairhaven was dotted with shabby houses that had been repossessed by banks.

"In the early '90s you couldn't give these homes away," he says. Today houses sell in the $800,000-and-up range, and when Bret Bielefeld bought his four-bedroom model a year ago, he had to beat out four competitors. But this is a story about more than market forces and the newfound love for all things modern having their way.

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What really makes Fairhaven a great place to live, many neighbors say, is its neighborliness, and they attribute much of that to two men, Craig Opsahl and Barry Russell, who brought people together and inspired others to do the same, and then rode off into the sunset like the 'Masked Man' and Tonto. "They were the catalyst for the social scene," McDonald says.

"The neighborhood has had its ups and downs," says John Wolfe, who has lived in Fairhaven since 1964 and attributes much of its current 'revival' to Opsahl and Russell, says the camaraderie crosses generations.

All it took, says Opsahl, who moved a year ago with Russell to Mt. Shasta, was ringing doorbells. He and Russell helped organize a neighborhood celebration to welcome in the Millenium, and 'cookie parties' to solicit toys and funds for poor children. Anyone can do it, almost anywhere, Opsahl advises. "Go knock on the door. It's not hard. The neighborhood is great, and all you have to do is put yourself out a little bit."

"The house itself is a binding element," Opsahl says. People talk about their reservations, commiserate about plumbing. "Mainly it's the panache of living in mid-century modern houses. When they became more popular, it made us feel cool, so we became extra cool."

Other neighbors took up the charge. Someone distributed pink flamingos that, installed in the front yard, announce that cocktails are being served. "There was a flamingo out nearly every night at somebody's house," Opsahl says. Other neighbors started a tradition of meeting one night a week at a Thai restaurant.

People in Fairhaven have gotten to know one another, and it's not because they all have children the same age. In fact, the neighborhood is extremely diverse, ranging from old-timers who once worked in aerospace to newcomers who work in the design fields. The neighborhood is ethnically mixed, and a bastion of Democrats in a largely Republican county ("But there are good Republicans in Orange county too," Carla Jacobs says), and has a large contingent of gays.

It's the parties that create much of its neighborliness, says Jacobs, whose house is well equipped for entertaining with its large atrium and requisite flamingo. Her opinion is shared by many residents, who repeatedly cite neighborhood Halloween and Christmas parties, progressive dinners, and get-togethers at nearby restaurants when asked what makes the neighborhood special. Fairhaven even has its own party band, the Rocket Scientists.

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The partying starts soon after newcomers arrive. "The first thing we did with Bret, he's lived here two months, we said, 'The party is at your house!'" Jacobs says. When David McDonald and John Peterson trekked north to get married at San Francisco's City Hall, they arrived home to a surprise neighborhood wedding shower, complete with wedding cake. "It's a very progressive, welcoming neighborhood," McDonald says.

Fairhaven is also a neighborhood that is seeing a return of young families. "For the longest time there were no kids," says John Webb, who has lived in Fairhaven for 20 years. "We're beginning to get children back in the neighborhood," Jacobs says.