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Fine Words and Fallen Buildings

January 23, 1994|PETER H. KING

Everybody knows the right words. How lucky the quake came as the city slept, sparing countless lives. Los Angeles people are battle-tested, resilient. Stuff happens. This is the price of living in paradise. The broken bone heals stronger. The city will survive. And, anyway, at least enjoy the sunshine; they are freezing to death in the East.

These are the words of consolation. These are the light, quick words of the immediate aftermath, in the early days of shock. The first instinct is panic. The second borders on giddiness. What's to cry about? At least we escaped with our lives. Rock and Roll. Welcome to L.A.

Six days after the earthquake, a new emotion has set it. And it is neither light nor quick. There is deep dread, a broadening realization that the wound on the city is a grave one. The dust is down and the smoke is gone and now the future is easier to see, and it is relentless.

It is block upon block of ruined buildings; they might look fine from the outside, but inside they are shot. It is months of four-hour commutes. It is businesses that if they reopen at all will not reopen for weeks, months, who knows when. It is wrecked schools and hospitals. It is lost paydays.


I reached Nick at his studio. He has lived in L.A. almost 20 years. He is a graphic designer, one of the city's best. It was late Thursday, and he was in a hurry. His Los Feliz studio was, he said, "devastated." He had come to salvage what he could. That night he would be helping three friends in distant corners of the Valley evacuate ruined apartments. His own home in North Hollywood was also damaged. He did not know how badly, for who can find an inspector?

In worst shape, though, was his spirit. He spoke sourly of Mayor Riordan and his thumbs-up public performances: "Who is he kidding?" He spoke of huddling at night in the dark with his wife and two little girls, "feeling like a caveman, waiting to see what monster was going to come." He spoke of buying a Glock pistol. He spoke of all the damage out there that the news cameras had yet to discover, the damage known only to those who live among it. He spoke of how it once had seemed important to live in Los Angeles, to make a mark, bring home a big paycheck.

"It's not worth the trade-off anymore," he said. "And you know what, Pete? It's not just the earthquake. It's all the things around the earthquake."

Once before, after his sister was a victim of a carjacking in Studio City, Nick and I had engaged in similar conversation. Then, I had reminded him why he had come to L.A. in the first place. We had talked about sunshine and our baseball team and friendships and living in a city on the cultural edge. This time I didn't keep up my end of the dialogue. This time I just let Nick go. His mind won't be changed by any pretty words. He's out there in the middle of something big. He might stay. He probably will go. And Los Angeles will be less without him and his family. But what are you supposed to say: "Hang in there, Nick. Get tough, Nick."

What I said was good luck.


There are many people like Nick out there. Study the faces in the pictures of lines outside the FEMA outposts. Look down from the airplane and count the tent cities. Drive the streets and observe the caravans of U-Hauls parked outside apartment buildings. Talk to anybody engaged in any kind of business. Tell them this crisis will build their character.

Those who presume to lead this place must understand something. This is not, as Pete Wilson's economic adviser told a news conference last Friday, "a minor event." This is not, as the highway officials were preaching last week, just another test of commuter creativity, like the 1984 Olympics. What has happened to Los Angeles, and thus to California, is deep and dangerous and fundamental. This is not workers' comp fraud, or a few dry years in the Sierra. This is not a situation to be played for partisan advantage, pacified with nickel-and-dime programs.

Onward. Together. Persevere. Out in the streets of the city, these words fall like shattered stucco. Out in the streets, such rhetoric does not match the hard evidence. And the people loading up their broken furniture know it. This time they will not be sweet-talked into staying. They know the truth. They know how badly the city is broken. What they want to hear, from someone, is how it will be put back together.

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