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San Juan Capistrano: The Oldest City in California

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San Juan Capistrano: The Oldest City in California
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San Juan Capistrano was started by a few Spanish priests during the Spanish exploration of the Americasis, and is said to be the oldest city in California. Over its 200-year history, San Juan Capistrano has undergone many changes and is characterized today by a strong sense of community and historical preservation. The San Juan Capistrano Mission is considered the most famous of all of the California missions and one of the most popular historical landmarks in Orange County.

A Brief History:

Prior to European settlement in the late 18th century, the area known as San Juan Capistrano was populated by nomadic Native American tribes. In 1775, the Spanish priest Father Fermin Lasuen made the first attempt to establish the first mission in the area. However, the Mission was attacked by San Diego natives and one of the priests was killed. The bells were buried and the Mission abandoned. A year later, Father Junipero Serra returned to uncover the bells and re-establish Mission San Juan Capistrano -- this time with the help of friendly local natives called Juaneno. The mission grew quickly and in 1811 experienced it’s most successful harvest and in 1812 the church was destroyed in an earthquake.

In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain and in 1833 a Secularization Act was passed, with a stipulation to divest the Mission lands. The lands were divvied up among a small group of political appointees, thus beginning the Rancho system controlled by a few wealthy and powerful land owners. San Juan Capistrano was declared a pueblo instead of a religious parish. In 1845, the Mission was sold to an Englishman and the governor’s brother-in-law.

The second half of the 19th century brought with it another transition in the San Juan Capistrano history and by the 1850s the land was American territory. The next 30 years the area went through a roller-coaster of development. The city became a gold-rush town and an overnight stage stop, and was eventually returned to the Catholic Church by the US Government. By the late 1800s San Juan Capistrano also became a railway stop, which helped usher in the 20th Century with economic stability, and in the mid-1900s San Juan Capistrano was officially incorporated.

Lay of the Land:

San Juan Capistrano covers an area of approximately 14 square-miles and is bisected by the I-5. It is bordered by beach cities San Clemente to the south and Dana Point to the west. On the northern border are Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo. To the east, San Juan Capistrano is bordered by is a large unincorporated area that flanks the southeastern side of Orange County, and includes some 10,000-acres of wilderness reserve and the Santa Ana Mountains.

Housing & Real Estate:

Like many South County cities, the cost of living in San Juan Capistrano higher than the California average. The area would still be considered affordable by comparison to most of the surrounding cities. While the real estate market boomed in the early part of new millennium, the market has been in decline since 2008. Average home prices remain above $300,000 and rental housing starts at approximately $1,400 for one bedroom. However, it is the diversity of housing ranging from adobes dating back to the 19th Century to million-dollar houses in the hills -- and equally divergent neighborhoods -- that makes San Juan Capistrano unique.

Median rent: $1,650
Median house or condo value: $562, 300

San Juan Capistrano Schools:

Capistrano Unified School District serves the city of San Juan Capistrano, along with seven other surrounding cities in south Orange County. While the district has recently been plagued with labor disputes, the CUSD has a history of academic excellence, with nearly half a dozen California Distinguished Schools and a handful of other National Blue Ribbon winners. CUSD is also a relatively diverse south county school district, which it embraces with programs such as Spanish and Mandarin language immersion programs.

Shopping & Dining:

San Juan Capistrano is split by the I-5, with the more suburban residential area to the north and the oldest part of the city to the south. It is in this historic part of the city, south of the I-5 at Ortega Hwy, where all the shopping and dining is clustered. While there is at least one major shopping center in town, the city has remained loyal to local and mostly family-owned retailers and restaurateurs.

San Juan Capistrano Attractions:

The main attraction in San Juan Capistrano is, of course, the Mission and the surrounding historical district. However, during the city’s gold rush days, the seeds were planted for arts and theatre -- a tradition maintained by local artist and at the Camino Real Playhouse.

San Juan Capistrano is also famous for the swallows that used to make their home atop the Mission and other historical buildings. While the birds have been granted protected status, they have not returned to the Mission since 2009, opting for higher ground in the Chino Hills instead. However, San Juan Capistrano still celebrates the return of the Swallows with an annual Swallows Day Parade.

By the Numbers:

Population: 34,593
Median Age: 36
Median Income: $90,000

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