The city began as a center of crude oil production, was later propelled by citrus production, and is now an important retail center because of the large Brea Mall and the recently redeveloped Brea Downtown.
The area was visited in 1769 by Gaspar de Portolà. A historical marker dedicated to his visit stands in Brea Canyon just north of town. He noted the local Native Americans as "dirty" without realizing that they used crude oil bubbling up in the canyon as topical medicine.
The village of Olinda was founded in present-day Carbon Canyon at the beginning of the 19th century and many entrepreneurs came to the area searching for "black gold" (petroleum). In 1894, the owner of the land, Abel Stearns, sold 1200 acres to the west of Olinda to the newly-created Union Oil Company, and by 1898 many nearby hills began sporting wooden oil-drilling towers. In 1908 the village of Randolph was founded just south of Brea Canyon for the oil workers and their families (and named for Epes Randolph, an engineer on the Pacific Electric Railway).
The villages of Olinda and Randolph grew and merged as the economy boomed, and on January 19, 1911, the town's map was filed under the new name of Brea, from the Spanish language word for tar. With a population of 752, Brea was incorporated on February 23, 1917, as the eighth official city of Orange County.
As oil production declined, some agricultural development took place, especially lemon and orange groves. In 1950 Brea had a population of 3,208. The citrus groves gave way gradually to industrial parks and residential development. The opening of the Orange Freeway (57) and the Brea Mall in the 1970s spurred further residential growth. In the late 1990s, a 50-acre swath of downtown Brea centered on Brea Boulevard and Birch Street was heavily redeveloped into a shopping and entertainment area with movie theaters, sidewalk cafes, a live comedy club from The Improv chain, numerous shops and restaurants, and a weekly farmer's market.
Brea is located at GR1.(33.923339, -117.888924)
Brea is governed by a mayor-council system. The five member City Council is elected for four year terms in elections every two years to fill alternately two and three seats. The Council is made up of the Mayor, the Mayor Pro Tem and three Councilmembers. The Council elects a Mayor from the current councilmembers to serve a one-year term as Mayor. The City Council hires a City Manager to direct the city's departments and advise the Council. The Council appoints members of the Planning Commission; Parks, Recreation and Human Services Commission; Cultural Arts Commission and Traffic Committee.
As of the censusGR2 of 2000, there were 35,410 people, 13,067 households, and 9,303 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,297.1/km² (3,358.1/mi²). There were 13,327 housing units at an average density of 488.2/km² (1,263.9/mi²). The racial makeup of the city was 77.33% White, 1.26% Black or African American, 0.52% Native American, 9.09% Asian, 0.22% Pacific Islander, 7.76% from other races, and 3.82% from two or more races. 20.35% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 13,067 households out of which 34.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 56.6% were married couples living together, 10.5% had a female householder with no husband present, and 28.8% were non-families. 23.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.70 and the average family size was 3.21.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.6% under the age of 18, 8.5% from 18 to 24, 30.4% from 25 to 44, 24.1% from 45 to 64, and 11.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 95.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 91.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $64,820, and the median income for a family was $68,423. Males had a median income of $50,500 versus $35,674 for females. The per capita income for the city was $26,307. About 3.4% of families and 5.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 6.7% of those under age 18 and 5.2% of those age 65 or over.
The city is served by the Brea Olinda Unified School District which operates six elementary schools, one junior high school (Brea Junior High School), one high school (Brea Olinda High School) and one continuation high school. Also serving Brea is the Brea Olinda Friends School (Pre-6), Brea Congregational Pre-School, Brea Foursquare Church (Pre-5), Brea United Methodist Pre-School ("BUMPS"), Carbon Canyon Christian School (K-12), Christ Lutheran School (Pre-8), St. Angela Merici Catholic School (K-8), and Montessori of Brea (K-6). Brea is also home to the Southern California College of Business and Law and the Southern California extension of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.