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ON CALIFORNIA

And Whatever Happened to Northridge?

August 28, 1994|PETER H. KING

NORTHRIDGE — In the neighborhoods of Northridge, mounds of rubble are piled out front every fourth house or so--cracked concrete, felled trees, shingles, shattered drywall, and the remains of fast-food lunches discarded by the demolition crews. Contractors and scavengers rumble about in pickups. Jackhammers pound away, tireless. A thin brown dust hangs overhead, filtering the August sunlight.

Some blocks are different. These are streets that contain the large apartment houses left uninhabitable by the Jan. 17 earthquake. Cyclone fences surround the sagging hulks of stucco. Spray-painted signs warn away transients and looters. "Did You Make Out Your Will?" taunts one such posting, sprayed across a tilted archway. People who live near these deserted apartments complain of bad smells and rodents and all too silent nights. The rats, they observe, have incited a secondary invasion of feral cats.

"It's all very depressing," says a man whose house sits in the literal shadow of a crumpled apartment complex on Reseda Boulevard. "It's like living in a ghost town. The smell has been awful. Garbage. Human waste. There has been some looting. And two nights ago there was a shooting. We heard a couple of shots."

"Who got shot?" he is asked.

"We don't know," he says with a shrug. "We never did find out. We just stayed inside."

*

Seven months beyond the quake, Northridge looks much as it did the first morning after. Buildings lean at terrible angles. Workers scramble about the wreckage, shoring up, pulling down. Apartment renters peer through the security fences with binoculars, looking for lost items. All that's missing from the scene are the firetrucks and television crews. The firetrucks have moved on to new disasters. The television crews have moved on to O.J.

Northridge remains--no longer in the news every day, but very much in the middle of the quake. Only now, residents say, have most homeowners begun to settle insurance claims and hire contractors. Reconstruction talk rattles about the coffee shops. With the easy familiarity of experts, residents kick around the stress loads of sheer walls and payment schedules of SBA loans. They strain, though, when asked to describe life since the quake. Terms like Beirut and war zone are tried, but these don't quite hit the mark.

"It's like," one woman says, "when you look at hot ground and it shimmers. Like a mirage. That is how it is here now. Nothing is quite right. Nothing is quite as it's supposed to be. You go to a shop, and it is closed. You go to get on the freeway, the ramp is shut down. You drive down Reseda and there's the apartment where the people died. Why can't they take the damned thing down? The earthquake is everywhere. You can't get away from it."

A few blocks away, another resident gropes for the right words. He speaks of atmospherics, of science fiction films. "Something is in the air," he says. "I can't describe it, but something is in the air and it feels the same as when that train came through our living room."

"You mean the earthquake?"

"Yes, the earthquake."

*

Not all wreckage is as obvious as curbside rubble. Residents also tell of short tempers and headaches that last for months, of marital tension and intimate fears. One man says he cannot make love to his wife in their bed; they now must go out of town for that. A woman volunteers that nocturnal trips to the toilet have become tests of her courage; in the earthquake, a tree crushed the bathroom. "Now," she says, "I have to sit there and have this conversation with myself: 'It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK.' "

She lives on one of Northridge's nicer streets. Her repairs will be done maybe in six weeks, she explains over the roar of an industrial rug cleaner. Her neighbors now sleep in a trailer parked on the lawn. And a few doors down sits a house that, abandoned, was taken over by a street gang.

"No one," she says, "has any idea what it's been like out here. They just don't have a clue. They have forgotten all about us."

This is not self-pity. This is simple fact. After the klieg lights flicker out, after the next sensation comes along, the people left behind must pick up the pieces themselves, alone. And picking up the pieces is never quite as easy as everyone likes to pretend. They know this in Koreatown and South-Central Los Angeles, where whole blocks remain burned out still, so long after the riots. They know this, too, on the barren slopes of the Oakland hills and in the canyons of Malibu and Laguna. And now they know it here, in the neighborhoods of Northridge.

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