If you're the list maker at Cities Journal, the best small towns of California (those under 20,000 population) are located at the beach or next to a vineyard. Cities Journal combed through other websites and publications to rank #15 Arcata (beach) to #1 Healdsburg (vineyards).
Both places got extra points for proximity to another California icon ... redwoods.
Like every ranking system, some facts were missed. #7 Montague -- a long drive up the 5 past Lake Shasta -- "risks running out of drinking water by the end of summer and has requested that all outside watering be curtailed until further notice," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
The water crisis in Montague is so severe because Montague is so tiny and bucolic.
Los Angeles County has four of the state's top 15 small towns, according to the journal: #11 Avalon on Catalina Island, #10 El Segundo, #5 Los Alamitos, and #3 Malibu. Odd town out is Los Alamitos, with neither beaches nor vineyards. How did it make the cut?
It isn't altogether clear. Los Alamitos in a couple of Cities Journal paragraphs goes from fields of sugar beets in the 1890s to the Los Alamitos Army Airfield today. A presumed "Spanish influence" is noted appreciatively, but not that the thousands of empty acres of Rancho Los Alamitos were more influenced by the native Tong'va and Mexican vaqueros in the 19th century and by Mexican braceros and Belgian immigrant farmers in the 20th.
What makes Los Alamitos special to Cities Journal is the USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center, which somehow infuses the whole town with a spirit of ... well ... something swell but not well defined.
You'd never know that Los Alamitos is a quirky town with a superior school district and a top performing high school, making the city and neighboring areas something of a magnet for kids sent into the Asian educational diaspora.
There's some industry in Los Alamitos, a medical center and strip retail of the sort that disfigures a lot of pre-1970s Orange County. But there's no less of a "there" there than in a dozen other small towns along the Los Angeles County/Orange County line carved out of orchards and dairies.
The town has a notably cranky city council (in small towns, politics are really personal) and residents who are passionate about the small stuff of the everyday, like the Catholic church dedicated to the gardener Saint Isidore (which has its own history of loss) and the city's brief history (which is the subject of a museum on Los Alamitos Boulevard).
For all its cheerful culling of Chamber of Commerce puffery and tour guide earnestness, Cities Journal missed the real reason why the city of Los Alamitos is a good place (like lots of other good places): The people there believe in it.