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Monday, May 16, 2022

Rising From the Rubble

Do you know where you were at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994? If you were a San Fernando Valley resident like I was at the time – and still am – you certainly could never forget. I was sleeping, like most of us, but unfortunately on the ground floor of a large three-story apartment complex in Van Nuys, just about two miles by the way the crow flies from the epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake. Two decades later, I remember instantly waking up and screaming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” In a millisecond, I thought, this is it. This is the Big One. And I’m gonna die, crushed on my bed, beneath tons of concrete and steel. And why wouldn’t have I thought that? The earthquake had a magnitude of “only” 6.7, but it produced the fastest ground movement ever recorded in a temblor. For me, that translated into a deafening roar, as the building jumped up and down, shaking everything inside – as if some giant Harlem Globetrotter was fast dribbling my entire apartment complex. I survived, and my building wasn’t even red-tagged, though the force of the earthquake had managed to twist the exterior steel-and-concrete stairwell like a Twizzler. Others weren’t so lucky. The death toll was finally calculated at 57, with more than 5,000 injured. The destruction, which spanned from Ventura to Orange counties, totaled $20 billion. The Valley and surrounding areas, such as Santa Clarita, were devastated. The flattened Northridge Meadows apartment complex served as a symbol of the widespread damage that devastated the Northridge Fashion Center, Cal State Northridge and the local freeway system. But perhaps more than anything, the temblor damaged our collective psyche. It followed the severe economic downturn prompted by downsizing of the defense industry as the Cold War faded into the past. It was hard not to feel bleak. I remember a relative who had grown up in the Valley saying the area was done. Its best days were behind it. Who could blame him? But all that pessimism showed was how little we really understand the technological and economic forces that govern our life. Who could have predicted the wild tech boom that followed, or the bust? Or the housing boom, or bust? Or the second tech boom and growth of online commerce? Or the deep demographic, cultural and other forces that have prompted an urban renewal in Los Angeles and across the country? I drive to work every day from Burbank to Woodland Hills, taking varied routes depending on the traffic. And, yes, the roads are atrocious, roots are busting through sidewalks and I see rundown buildings and other signs of economic neglect and disparity. But I also see renewal and think to myself that overall the Valley looks spiffier than the day I moved here in June 1988. A mass transit line has been built across the Valley. New businesses dot Ventura Boulevard from one end to the other. North Hollywood has been raised from the dead. Glendale has turned into a shopping Mecca. New high-end apartment complexes seem to mushroom out of vacant lots. And the Cal State Northridge campus looks better than ever, with new construction and a world-class performing arts center. Tell me. Could you have imagined this renewal in the bleak days following the Northridge Earthquake? I certainly didn’t. It’s one major lesson worth remembering as we start to read stories in the coming days commemorating the 20th anniversary of that terrible event. It was terrible, yes, but it has reinforced the idea that while bricks may fall, the human spirit isn’t so easy to break. And it’s an affirmation of our way of life and economy, despite its flaws. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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