FILLMORE — When butcher Richard Gonzalez walks the main street of his hometown, he sees no trace of the earthquake that turned the bustling shopping area to rubble five years ago.
The Central Market--demolished and rebuilt. The old brick-and-mortar Masonic Temple--now a gazebo-and-roses park. Segovia's Fillmore Market--repaired and reopened.
Just four blocks off the main drag, Richard's Family Meat Market is patched together with a wooden brace, which prevents a 2-inch crevice in the stucco from growing wider. Damage notwithstanding, Gonzalez isn't going anywhere. Rather than abandon the business .jhis grandfather opened in 1932, Gonzalez is planning to raze the building next month and rebuild.
"The earthquake was a test: Who really wants to stay in business? Who wants to cut and run? Who's committed?" Gonzalez, 45, said during a lull between customers. "We're not going anywhere. I'm not going to be the one to sell out. The ghosts would come after me."
For some cities tossed and tumbled by earthquakes, five years would not be nearly enough time to mend. Not so in 13,050-resident Fillmore, where one-third of downtown was lost in the shaking.
In fact, Richard's Family Meat Market is the last remaining downtown business still showing evidence of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that crushed Fillmore's buildings but not its small-town spirit.
Five years after the quake that rocked Southern California and caused damage of $50 million in Fillmore, the Santa Clara Valley city is about 95% recovered, city officials say.
A gleaming new neoclassical City Hall beckons visitors alongside the Fillmore & Western Railroad tracks. The vaudeville theater-turned-single-screen-movie-house skipped its date with the wrecking ball and now welcomes 1,300 patrons a week. Sales tax revenues tumbled initially but have since more than recovered.
Battered but far from beaten, merchants have repaired, rebuilt, reopened and renovated. Shopkeepers may skimp on vacations now and most carry more debt than they would choose, but they are open for business.
"Certainly, the community and the businesses suffered damages and financial losses, and not all of them would consider it a blessing in disguise," City Manager Roy Payne said. "But the end product is a better downtown than before."
Fillmore Towne Theatre
Truth is, parts of Fillmore's downtown had descended into shabbiness before the earthquake. The Fillmore Towne Theatre was such a place.
Opened in 1916, the theater was home to countless first dates and stolen kisses for generations of residents. But before the earthquake, the theater's concession stand was too small and the floor too sticky.
A jolt at 4:31 a.m. Jan. 17, 1994, changed that fast.
"The entire ceiling came down in the center, like a 'V,' " theater manager Jon Holley said. "Two of the walls formed a tent on top of it. The basement and subbasement caved into the sewer and sump system. It was a river down there."
Initially, the theater--or "the show," as locals call it--was supposed to be razed. But some believed it was too important to lose--a draw to downtown, the only theater in the river valley between Santa Clarita and Ventura.
"The great concern was that the theater was going to have to come down and that would have a domino effect on downtown because the buildings are old brick ones built close together," said Fillmore Deputy City Clerk Steve McClary, then editor of the local newspaper. "The fear was it would ripple down the block."
So the city bought the theater for $77,000 and received federal, state and local grants as well as residents' donations worth $1.2 million toward rebuilding. The theater is now accessible to the disabled. Original Art Deco light fixtures and much of the taupe, cream and plum vine-patterned carpet remain. The floors have lost their stickiness.
"People are definitely coming back," Holley said. "Before the earthquake it had fallen into a little bit of disrepair. When the earthquake happened, the community realized how vital it was--you could still walk to it and you didn't worry about the kids getting there safely."
The theater is slowly climbing out of the red. Opening in late 1996, the movie house's first fiscal year ended with an $85,000 deficit. The next year, it was $45,000 in the red. This fiscal year, costs are running about $7,000 behind revenue.
"Every year we lose a whole lot less than the year before," Holley said. "By the fiscal year's end in June, we might be able to break even."
Segovia's Fillmore Market
Despite efforts to resuscitate his family market, which was badly damaged in the earthquake, Jess Segovia finds himself in a grocer's Catch-22: The 52-year-old merchant doesn't have enough customers to fully stock his shelves. Yet he can't attract more customers because his shelves are not fully stocked. The lack of customers leaves him with a lack of cash, so Segovia cannot cash checks for the oil workers and farm laborers who come by once a week for necessities.