The mobilization began about a week after the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake, when a tiny newspaper listing announced a meeting of citizens interested in protecting Whittier’s earthquake-crippled historic buildings from the wrecking ball.
Michael Sullens and eight other people gathered one evening in a darkened parking lot, waiting for the organizer of the meeting to arrive. He never did, “so I just invited them to my living room down the street,” Sullens said.
There, the fledgling activists planned a protest march to save the Lindley Building, the city’s oldest commercial structure, heavily damaged in the earthquake. The night of the march, the protesters scored their first victory: a promise from the city to reconstruct the 99-year-old Lindley using its original bright red bricks and elaborate cornice-work etching.
Embroiled in Controversy
And so began a year of eyebrow-raising, earthquake-provoked activism that has embroiled the Quaker-founded city in controversy.
Preservationists sued the city twice, and won both times, in efforts to save two other historic buildings. A group of Whittier developers organized a first-ever local chapter of the Southern California Builders Assn. to defend their interest in the city’s current zoning debate. And members of the Whittier Uptown Assn., the merchants’ group in the city’s earthquake-devastated central business district, have assumed a high profile role in lobbying for an ambitious redesign plan for the area.
“To me, that’s as healthy a thing as we’ve ever had,” said Mayor Victor A. Lopez, adding that he has never seen such civic involvement in his 59 years in Whittier. “They are informed now about what’s happening. You can tell by how well they know the issues.”
Sullens, who has watched membership in the preservationist Whittier Conservancy swell from nine to 95 members, smiled as he recalled the days when all he had to worry about were his family and his flooring business.
“I had total confidence in city government until the quake hit,” said Sullens, president of the conservancy. “I had such a terrible Pollyanna attitude.”
Now, Sullens and other conservancy members expertly scan meeting agendas for preservation issues to be taken up by the Planning Commission and City Council, and rarely miss a chance to lecture public officials on the importance of Whittier’s historic neighborhoods.
The activists seem to resent the reception they have received at City Hall. For instance, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said in a letter that a conservancy request for city maintenance of one historic building would be filed under “inane and unintelligible accusations” concerning preservation. Some city officials privately refer to conservancy members as “hysterical preservationists.”
“It has taken a lot of effort to be so public, to be ridiculed by a lot of people in the city (government),” Sullens said.
The conservancy and the city are squaring off again in Whittier’s current controversy: whether city zoning allows developers to replace some earthquake-damaged homes with apartments. Helen McKenna-Rahder, who recently joined the conservancy, has become an articulate spokeswoman for homeowners who fear that their residential neighborhoods will be invaded by nondescript apartments.
“For me, it’s turned into a full-time business,” McKenna-Rahder said. “I get calls from people all the time saying, ‘Can you help me?’ ”
She has filled thick binders with copies of laws governing planning and zoning, historic preservation and environmental protection. After McKenna-Rahder queried a state agency about whether Whittier had filed a legally required report on its housing stock, the agency notified the city that it was two years late in submitting the report.
Nit-picking? “If we can save this street and that block and this house, maybe we can save a quadrant of the city,” McKenna-Rahder answers.
Despite the sometimes contentious debate Whittier has seen in the last year, all sides agree that the earthquake had solidified the ties among the members of their respective groups who used to be virtual strangers.
“I have met so many wonderful people this year, and made so many close friends,” McKenna-Rahder said.