Michael Sullens didn't rate a call from the mayor of Whittier in 1987 when city leaders frowned on his plans to demonstrate against the demolition of local historic buildings. The carpet store owner got a call, instead, from the sister-in-law of an ex-City Council member, who told him that protests were unacceptable because they made the city look bad.
Helen McKenna-Rahder, a homemaker, was accorded even less respect when she complained to the City Council that officials were approving development projects that were ruining neighborhoods. On at least one occasion, city officials told her to be quiet and sit down.
But neither Sullens nor McKenna-Rahder backed away.
They marched in the streets, studied redevelopment and zoning laws, and poured over meeting agendas. They vowed to preserve Whittier as a village-like town of historic buildings, tree-lined streets, wood-framed bungalows, and stretches of undeveloped ridges and canyons in the hills nearby. They and like-minded residents came to be called preservationists.
At first, they fought City Hall and lost. Ultimately they gained control of the City Council and changed its direction.
McKenna-Rahder and ally Bob Henderson, who runs an insurance company, won election to the five-member City Council in 1990. Two years later they were joined by preservationists Sullens and Allan P. Zolnekoff, a utility company planner. Shortly after, retired school board member Janet Henke--who frequently, though not always, sides with the other council preservationists--replaced Larry Haendiges, who resigned because of personal problems.
In two years the council turned over 100%, shed 20 years from its average age and installed a new philosophy in City Hall. The "good old boys," as McKenna-Rahder called them, were out. Last week, Sullens, at 39, became the youngest mayor in memory. Henke, at 61, is currently the oldest council member.
The new council members have worked to preserve old buildings and turn away developers seeking to erect apartments in hundred-year-old neighborhoods. They kept new houses off undeveloped hillsides and purchased land to create a wilderness park. Developers who wanted to build strip malls with scant parking and no landscaping were told to go back to the drawing board.
The preservationist-controlled council challenged an established Southern California orthodoxy: that new is good, bigger is better, and development is inevitable, unalterable and right.
If not for this change in perspective, "there wouldn't be any wildlife habitat up in the hills," said Zolnekoff, who is 40. "There would be more apartments with transient populations and more crime and gangs, more mini-malls with stop-and-rob stores on every corner."
Some skeptics, however, aren't sure the city is particularly better off.
Critics have referred to the preservationists as business haters, tree huggers, and even communists. The council has been accused of chasing away needed business development and infringing upon the rights of property owners. Critics say the council has focused too narrowly on preservation issues such as opposing development in the Whittier Hills, an area that is largely privately owned and outside city limits and jurisdiction.
Some of the criticism has taken root. Although voters returned two incumbents to office earlier this month, McKenna-Rahder, 42, lost her bid for reelection to challenger Greg Nordbak, who had accused the council of being anti-business.
But even without McKenna-Rahder, the preservationists remain firmly in control and dedicated to causes born in the rubble of the devastating earthquake that struck Whittier on the morning of Oct. 1, 1987.
The temblor, measuring at magnitude 5.9 on the Richter scale, destroyed 34 buildings and damaged 23 others, affecting about 140 businesses in the central business district, known as Uptown. In all, more than 5,000 Whittier homes and businesses suffered an estimated $90 million in damage.
Hit especially hard were the neighborhoods on the perimeter of Uptown and neighboring Whittier College. Residents consider these areas some of the most charming in this town of 80,000.
These tree-lined streets were home to the first white settlers of Whittier, a Quaker settlement founded in 1887. A handful of farmhouses date from the late-1800s. The neighborhoods also include Victorian-style homes, houses based on designs by renowned architects Greene and Greene, and rows of Craftsman-style one- and two-story wooden bungalows.
Change swept down upon these quiet streets in the aftermath of the quake.
Many homeowners lacked adequate insurance or savings to pay for repairs, and some ultimately sold their damaged houses to investors who razed the properties to make way for apartments.