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Orange County

San Clemente Hits a Happy Median

Economy: Area near pier is in middle after U.S. income benchmark drops 2.2%. Residents, even those without jobs, plan to stay put.


One of the first things Melissa Magner did when she moved into her small, wood-frame apartment on Encino Lane five years ago was measure the short walk down a curl of palm-lined streets to the beach just north of the San Clemente Pier.

Two-tenths of a mile, exactly.

"This is," she said last week, "a good place to be unemployed."

Magner, a 32-year-old recreation therapist, has been out of regular work since the beginning of the year, part of a nationwide slide that last year reduced the median household income by 2.2%, to $42,228, the first time since 1994 the benchmark shifted downward.

"I guess I'm it. I'm the reason," Magner said with a laugh in her frontyard, a rectangle of grass, potted plants and patio chairs just a few steps up the street from an ocean view.

While the median remains near the all-time high, the slip reflects broad pressures from such economic realities as jobs exported under globalism, domestic layoffs and stagnant corporate profits and reduced wages.

On the surface, little of that would seem to involve Magner's neighborhood. But it does. Through a convergence of coincidence, the neighborhood's household income in the 2000 census was the price of two pizzas higher than the national median.

That makes Magner's neighborhood a fulcrum for a statistical abstract: Half the nation's households make more than $42,228, and the other half make less.

This is what the median looks like in the flesh, and in wood and stucco. Magner's neighborhood--technically, census tract 421.08, block group 5--comprises a small cluster of streets with single-family homes and apartments between the San Clemente Community Center and a block of condominiums on a bluff overlooking the beach.

The neighborhood reflects the nation in narrow economic terms, but its makeup carries a decidedly Southern California skew. According to census data, a higher percentage of white residents lives here than in the nation overall--unusual, given Southern California's ethnic diversity. Residents are younger than the national median. And most, like Magner, are renters, while nationally more people live in homes they own.

Amanda Watts, 39, and her husband are part of the local minority who own their home. Although they get along with their neighbors--"It's the kind of place where people say 'Hi,' " said one resident--they don't really know many of them.

Watts knows more people from around town than she does from her surrounding streets, a function of the transient nature of rental neighborhoods.

"It's like Newport Beach was before the crowds," said Watts, a stay-at-home mother of two boys, ages 14 and 11. "It has that small-town feeling. People recognize you. I must wave to 20 people a day. But it's not that small-town. It still has variety."

If Magner's unemployment checks weigh down the neighborhood income median, the Watts family helps lift it back up. Watts said her husband makes well above the median as operations manager for a company that makes automated welding machines.

With the recession, though, orders have been down, the company was recently bought out and her husband--and fellow workers--saw their paychecks cut.

"We're fortunate that he's still working," she said.

There's no way to determine the nature of work done by the neighborhood's residents. Some are self-employed. Many of the renters, residents say, work in restaurants and other service industries. Some, like Magner, don't have jobs.

Magner quit as a recreation therapist at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in January to pursue a dream: to become an elementary school teacher. Having completed her courses, she signed up this spring to do four months of student teaching--"working for free," she says--to finish her credential requirements.

Magner taught a class for autistic pre-kindergarteners but couldn't land a full-time teaching job when school opened this month. Substitutes make only $90 a day with no benefits, so Magner decided to return to recreation therapy.

But she's not giving up on her dream.

"I want a regular classroom, eventually," she said as she waited for a return call from a hospital human resources office. One concession she won't make: moving.

"It's just so laid-back," she said as breezes ruffled flowering bushes and a sprinkler whooshed somewhere down the street. "It's just such a nice beach attitude, great neighbors. It's just a wonderful place to live."

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