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Embracing the change the “Orange” way

By Xiaolong Wong on Unsplash

As a Chapman student, chances are at some point you've strolled down the road and stumbled upon what's commonly known as the Orange Circle, or as some of the locals refer to it, "The Plaza." With the university's recent growth and the Orange Circle’s evolution into a renowned destination for shopping, food, or peaceful scenery, there continue to be some notable shifts in the area. As we walk along the streets, it's evident that there was a time when Antique Malls reigned in the circle, but now, the landscape is dominated by a variety of restaurants and clothing boutiques, diverging from its traditional roots. You might be curious about the role CCIs play in this evolution, particularly from the perspectives of tourism, fashion, or simply consumerism. What prompted this shift from Antique Malls to what we know now? Keep reading to uncover the truth behind it.

Local History Collection, Orange Public Library & History Center, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

The History

Let me take you back to the 1880s. The Plaza appeared rather unremarkable, merely an open dusty square adorned with a scattering of pepper trees, as detailed in a PBS SoCal article discussing The Circle. Despite its humble beginnings, local residents were determined to beautify the area. Through a community fundraising effort, they succeeded in installing the original fountain by 1887. Phil Brigandi, in his book "Orange: The City Round the Plaza," delves into the plaza's early history, highlighting the gradual transformation from predominantly wooden structures along Glassell to the emergence of iconic brick buildings between 1905 and 1912. Sidewalks with curbs were added in 1906, although the streets remained unpaved until 1912. It was during this period that The Plaza began to take on the semblance of a modern city center with shops, banks, city government offices, and a hardware store. The progress of The Circle would continue to increase along these lines for approximately three decades. It wasn't until the establishment and rapid growth of supermarket chains in the 1960's, like Target and Walmart, when suddenly the demand for small independent stores plummeted.  It was then the emergence of antique stores that revitalized The Circle, preventing the area from turning into an abandoned ghost town.

Local History Collection, Orange Public Library & History Center, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

For decades, according to the OCR,  “the Plaza has served as the unofficial antique capital of Southern California.” It attracted visitors from all corners of the state in search of hidden treasures and trinkets! However, it's evident that in the face of an evolving society, if businesses fail to adapt it can lead to demise, causing a shift from the old to the new. Locals with deep ties to Orange County will attest that antique malls played a pivotal role in revitalizing the area in the 70s and 80s, yet owners have felt increasingly pushed out by changing trends and rising costs, since as far back as 2013.

“The antique shops are an iconic industry that saved Old Towne,” said Dennis Caldwell, [former] owner of the Chapman Antique Mall on East Chapman Avenue. “Now they’re trying to turn the area into something else,” as stated by him when interviewed by the OCR in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Estefania Rosas


Chapman University, which now occupies several areas in downtown Orange including the original Orange Union High School location, has also had an impact on the makeup of The Circle. The early 2000s saw a more dramatic increase in student enrollment, and as such the circle began yet another transformation in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. It became evident that antique malls were no longer in demand among college students; instead, there was a growing desire for clothing stores, restaurants, and, most notably, a demand for craft bars and breweries, like The District Lounge and Chapman Crafted.

Chapman wasn’t the only entity affecting the collection of antique stores at The Circle. It's important to remember that shifts in market demands can post great challenges for small businesses like those in the plaza. Many were forced to adapt or close as online platforms like eBay and Amazon emerged. Online sales platforms such as those offer alternative avenues for sales without the overhead of a physical retail space. 

Photo Courtesy of Dmytro Demidko on Unsplash

Rising costs

Due to escalating expenses, numerous shops in the area have had to consider shuttering their stores. Back in 2022, the renowned Watson’s Soda Fountain Cafe had to close its doors because of skyrocketing rent prices, rendering the business financially unsustainable. Watson’s Cafe was a charming diner with nostalgic charm, where customers once enjoyed the simplicity of eating burgers and milkshakes at an old lunch counter reminiscent of mid century diners.

Fun fact, it was even used as a Hollywood set! “featured in movies including the Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do!,” and over the decades, has drawn patrons the likes of George W. Bush, who once popped in for a malt, as stated by Tess Sheets, a different author from the OCR. 

Even with the popularity of the restaurant and the fact that it was beloved by locals, it just couldn’t survive “the $14,000 monthly rent, on top of the business’ other expenses,” further mentioned by Sheets. The fierce competition for space poses further challenges for small businesses trying to thrive. 

Courtesy of Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

So, Is it time to move on?

Like the seasons everything changes. The Orange Circle has witnessed numerous trends come and go, as it strives to keep pace with the changing times. Taking note of such trends is important as they reveal the rapidly changing nature of such city centers, even as they outwardly project a veneer of historic preservation. The Plaza holds a special place in Orange County history, one that many residents hope local leaders will strive to preserve. Tess Sheets goes on to say in her OCR piece that locals are concerned that the very essence of The Circle might be destroyed if not protected. As CCI students we have observed that understanding the history of an industry, market, location or art, can be crucial to the progress of that area.

Photo Courtesy of Estefania Rosas

Embracing the change 

Remember folks… not all change is bad. The creative and cultural industries offer plenty of unique ways to connect the present with the past. As mentioned by Sprudge, Play Coffee established in 2020, set out to create a cool hangout spot and feature top-notch coffees from all over the globe. What's fascinating? Play Coffee became a hip café nestled in the historic Wells Fargo Building in Old Towne Orange. Picture this: an espresso bar right smack in the middle, where you can watch the crew assemble your favorite brews. It's also the first time since 1928 that the space isn't being used as a bank! Once outside, you're greeted by the charm of The Plaza and the warmth of the Californian sun.

Health trends like walking and the rise of ghost tours in tourism not only contribute to an increase in tourist dollars but reignite interest in the circle. This leads to visitors being drawn to the area not only for its beauty, but also because they have a genuine interest in learning about the history of Orange.

Photo Courtesy of Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

A variety of creative sectors contribute to the dynamic setting of The Circle, encompassing tourism, fashion, food, and art, among others. While catering to market demands is a large part of running a business in a city center like The Circle, I post this question to you as fellow CCI minors: Do you believe it’s important for The Circle to continually evolve, even at the cost of its own history? We know that businesses work tirelessly to appeal to diverse audiences, yet amid a rapidly changing market and fleeting trends, it will be interesting to see how The Circle looks ten years from now.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Morter on Unsplash

We hope you've found this reading enjoyable and thought-provoking. As you stroll through The Circle next time, consider the impact of CCIs on small businesses, and more importantly, how they can positively change. If you liked this piece and wish to share your thoughts, feel free to contact us via Instagram @chapman_CCI or email

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