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GHOST TOWN : Battered, Nearly Abandoned, a Neighborhood in West Adams Struggles to Piece Itself Back Together Eight Months After the Earthquake

October 02, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK

Sherlene Taylor surveys her home of 20 years and the once-bustling block of Harcourt Street in West Adams with heavy sighs and an air of despair.

She points to the lopsided houses and empty plots of dirt and rocks--the remains of the thrashing this street and the neighborhood took in the Northridge earthquake.

In front of her own house, Taylor carefully steps over bricks, old lumber and trash strewn throughout the front and back yards. She peeks through a gaping hole to view what was once her living room, now a hollow shell of wooden beams and floors. Her driveway is a mass of gravel, dust and debris.

It's the middle of a weekday afternoon in an area dominated by retired senior citizens, but Harcourt Street is strangely quiet.

"It's depressing to see your house like this, all broken down," Taylor, 55, says in a low voice. "And the neighborhood, too. Old friends gone, their houses just sitting there with no one in them. You don't know if they'll move back. It's all changed."

Scattered along this block-long stretch of Harcourt--and two adjacent streets--between Adams Boulevard and Hickory Street are the quake's vivid scars: vacant houses, empty lots where homes once stood, skeletons constructed for new buildings.

Eight months after the temblor shook Los Angeles, the city is still plagued with single blocks and neighborhoods of vacant, wrecked buildings, dubbed ghost towns by the Los Angeles housing department because of the physical devastation and the increase of vandalism, theft and vagrants.

Though most of the 15 ghost towns in Los Angeles are in the San Fernando Valley, West Adams is the site of an often-overlooked designated area.

Bordered by Adams and Rimpau boulevards, Palm Grove Avenue and Hickory Street, this cluster of mostly single-family homes and duplexes was hard hit. Several dozen chimneys toppled. Hairline cracks created what looked like replicas of freeway maps on walls. About 10% of the area's 1930s-era houses were knocked off their foundations.

Plywood boards now cover windows and padlocks block the doors, while grass grows into tall weeds at some houses. On the corner of Palm Grove Avenue and Hickory Street, the shell of a duplex that burned during the earthquake stood precariously on one side while the other side started to buckle under its own weight. The building was recently demolished.

There are also reconstructed houses on these streets-- sans the brick chimneys, but with new driveways, foundations and the same homeowners who retain some hope along with large loans to repay.

To outsiders, these streets initially seem to have few problem houses. The four-block section can hardly compare to the devastation that remains in parts of the Valley, where crushed frames of quake-ravaged apartment buildings sit dormant, further wrecked by looters, prostitutes and transients.

"Other ghost towns are more compact. You may have a cul-de-sac totally obliterated. (In West Adams), the earthquake left a scattered trail of damage over many, many blocks," said Bob Moncrief, director of major projects for the city's housing department. "So, it doesn't look like a ghost town."

Nevertheless, there remains significant quake damage in West Adams. It is the only designated ghost town made up predominantly of single-family homes. According to city statistics, of 2,159 buildings still vacant from the earthquake, 263 are in ghost towns. West Adams accounts for 53 of those buildings and its ghost town has a 30% vacancy rate. City figures also show that the West Adams area suffered an estimated $1.2 million in damage.

In addition, while several quake-damaged areas of the Valley are financially stable, West Adams is a neighborhood with low- to moderate-income households. Many residents are senior citizens living on fixed incomes who have been in these neighborhoods for 20 years or more.

"This is not a transient group of people. They've had considerable structural loss, which has led to lots of emotional and psychological pain for them," said Cheryl N. Grills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University who conducted a survey of earthquake damage in South Los Angeles for the Community Coalition.

Grills, like several residents, community activists and political leaders who represent this area, blamed the media's lack of coverage of quake-damaged South Los Angeles for the lack of attention and resources for quake victims.

City Councilman Nate Holden, whose district was the hardest hit in South Los Angeles, said the media "displaced the core of the damage from the earthquake. Yes, it was in Northridge. But it's down here, too."

Taylor and her husband have been living with their son while their house is being repaired. Taylor complained that stories like hers have been ignored by media and officials.

"Everybody talks about the Valley this and the Valley that, but look here, right here around Crenshaw, there's damage all around here," she said.

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