Jan. 24, 1994
It is a strange feeling to have your hometown suddenly become known around the world after a lifetime of undeserved obscurity. By my reckoning, Northridge has been famous only twice before. In 1969 the most raucous rock concert ever held in Los Angeles raged for three long days and nights at Devonshire Downs, the old horse racing track and fairgrounds. It was a lot more fun than the earthquake a week ago.
Some years later, comedian Richard Pryor burned his face in an accident at his gated estate, a block and a half from the more modest house where I grew up. I don't live there anymore, but driving around to survey the earthquake damage reminded me that Northridge has always been underrated. It was a pretty fair place for a boy to grow up in the 1950s and '60s, a semi-rural gem that was never just another faceless Valley subdivision.
There were hidden creeks for catching tadpoles, an abundance of pomegranates and oranges for a furtive snack in someone's back yard, and lots of horses. We had tall, elegant old walnut trees in our yard, relics of the orchards that replaced wheat as the crop of choice. It never felt like the city or even a real suburb. At various times we had a horse, a cow, a peacock, a parrot, a toad and possums show up in our yard. My dad still traps possums every so often and calls Animal Regulation to come get them.
Northridge had its own parade and rodeo, the Stampede, every year. The fair at Devonshire Downs each summer was the place for neighborhood kids to show off their prize rabbits and ewes. Northridge was also a Hollywood colony for those stars who liked horses or just enjoyed being out of town. Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Oakie and Betty Grable lived in Northridge. Montie Montana, the cowboy star, rode in the Stampede and was the honorary mayor for many years.
When I was young parents there had enough clout to ensure the building of good schools and to get Willie Mays and Don Drysdale to come to the opening of Little League season. New subdivisions and sewers were constantly under construction, so there were always bulldozers to climb on and scrap lumber to scavenge for treehouses.
Northridge was different for a reason, I came to believe. Long before it fell into line as a suburb of imperial Los Angeles, it was a real place. It had a main street -- now Reseda Boulevard -- a train depot on the Southern Pacific coast line, and a different name: Zelzah (and, for a time, North Los Angeles).
A few days after the quake, I picked up my brother, Peter, and we went to check out the old sights. On top of Plummer Hill, a piece of high ground shaded by eucalyptus trees and cooled by a small creek probably known only to neighborhood kids, an old adobe house of mysterious origin was still standing.
The aging wood-frame houses also looked all right in my favorite old Northridge neighborhood, an area of dirt streets and overgrown pepper trees that began as a subdivision of chicken ranches in the 1920s. There were some broken windows but the old houses looked like they had held their own. Not two blocks away, modern apartment buildings across the street from Cal State Northridge had collapsed on each other.
In our old neighborhood, which has somehow come to be called Sherwood Forest by the real estate agents, the house where my parents still live got thoroughly shaken. They lost a toilet, some other plumbing and their quota of valuable glassware. But their chimney held. A few blocks away, where the homes are bigger and newer and worth more, it seemed as if the chimneys had fallen off every fourth house.
Yards are huge in this area, sometimes close to an acre, and typically hidden behind screens of trees or -- more commonly as the Valley became inundated with cars -- block walls. Now, for the first time since I was young and willing to sneak over fences, I could see in many of those yards.
The wall was down in front of where Jim Davis had lived, and I could see that the house that fascinated my friends and me as 10-year-olds was actually pretty basic. Jim was an old Western character actor who didn't become a household name until he starred as the oil patriarch Jock Ewing on TV's "Dallas." As kids we knew Jim as the gruff but daring Wes Cameron on "Rescue 8," one of the first television series, if not the first, to glamorize rescue squads and paramedics. One birthday I asked for (and got) a coil of rope because of my absorption with his rescue exploits.
Many walls had also fallen around the two dozen homes built on what used to be Oscar-winning actor Walter Brennan's estate. Some of the walls had just laid down, their masonry intact, so they now looked like brick sidewalks.
Most of old downtown Northridge was gone long before this quake. When we were kids, the train station still stood at the intersection of Reseda Boulevard and Parthenia Street. Nearby was Brown's feed store, which had a wooden boardwalk in front and a wonderful smell of hay and saddle leather. The ghosts of both old landmarks were buried under a new train overpass built in the late 1960s. We did find the old Norwegian Lutheran church, which was built in 1917. It is part of a Japanese Free Methodist church now on Gresham Street, and its white shiplap looked sound. With its steep stairs and narrow girth, it looks like a church you'd find sitting all alone on the Kansas plains.
One of the places I wanted to inspect was Northridge Skateland, my proving ground as a teen-ager. I held my first job and first flirted with girls at the roller rink. I also spent many Friday nights there dancing to a young Tina Turner (still with husband Ike at the time) and rock bands such as Iron Butterfly and the Standells. The rink's dual life as a dance hall ended when its curmudgeonly owner, Roy Bannister, quit the business.
Dave and Mike Fleming, whose father bought the place in 1968 and kicked out us riffraff, were there last week overseeing repairs. The ceiling had fallen down and what used to be the back wall was open to the elements. The damage was not as bad as it looked, said Dave Fleming. "This was built (in 1956) as a warehouse . . . in case the roller rink didn't work out," he said. The gape in the wall was where the loading doors had been. They planned to reopen the rink this Friday with a benefit skating session to raise money for Red Cross quake relief efforts, he said.
Not as lucky were a number of stone houses at Rancho Cordillera del Norte on Wilbur Avenue. At least one of the rock houses was in shambles and others appeared to be severely damaged.
The new Northridge has none of the charm of the old. Built mostly on land I remember as orange groves and pasture on the far fringes of town, it is mile after mile of walled enclaves with names such as Running Springs, Devonshire Country Estates, Ridge Gate. At least, they were behind walls until last Monday morning.
At Devonshire Downs, there was nothing left to be damaged. The exhibit halls where 4-H kids competed for ribbons and the horse corrals are long gone, the property now an adjunct to Cal State Northridge. The last orchard of any size is a token seven acres of oranges at CSUN. Even our Little League field is gone, covered by a tract of homes where some of the families spent last week living in the driveway in their RVs.
But I was relieved to find that at least some of the Northridge that I remember survives, enough that it still feels like home. My old hometown may never again be totally obscure, but that's not such a bad thing. Sometimes it's nice when everybody knows your name.
©Los Angeles Times 1994