Creeping Toward Normalcy

The healing of Los Angeles will not happen at once. There will be no single breakthrough event to end this long, bleak passage--no snip of a ceremonial ribbon, no pounding of a last golden spike. Instead, progress toward normalcy will come slowly, almost imperceptibly, a journey of halting steps forward and occasional stumbles back, a serial of small moments.

One such moment was unfolding here last week. With no great fanfare, a shopping mall knocked out by the Northridge earthquake was, two months later, finally creeping back to life. Last weekend, about 30 of the Fashion Square mall's 130 stores reopened. Shoppers who lined up Saturday morning for the moment applauded as the doors unlocked.

"People kept coming up Saturday and saying how happy they were to have us open again," said Marti Devore, who sells men's clothing in the mall at a store founded by her father half a century ago. "They were so anxious to have their community spot back. After the earthquake, they would call all the time, asking when, when, when, when, when?"

Marti is a friend. Her husband is a colleague at this newspaper. Over the years, she has tried to teach me a bit about fashion, and never has there been a more needy pupil. I also have gained from her some sense of the perils of running a retail business, especially amid a recession. Last Christmas had been a good one for the store, the first in a while. She felt perhaps a corner had been turned. What she could not know, of course, was that a few weeks away, on the other side, an earthquake waited.

*

A few days after the quake I made it to Fashion Square. Marti's store had survived, but the mall in general was a stunning jumble of scattered merchandise, toppled mannequins, broken glass, flooded storefronts. Recovery was difficult to imagine. I remember telling myself then that maybe Marti had sold her last pair of pants. And I remember sensing something in her demeanor, a certain flatness to her spirit, that suggested she thought the same.

"I guess," Marti acknowledged Thursday, "I was pretty depressed at first."

It is easy, though, in the immediate aftermath of crisis, to underestimate people--friends, strangers, even ourselves. Before too long, Marti was packing clothes out the back door to deliver to customers by car. "Customers still kept calling," she said. "They still needed ties to match their shirts." Similarly, out in the mall, what had seemed an irredeemable mess slowly was being put back together, one piece at a time.

"There is no handbook for how to rebuild a mall after an earthquake," Saul McCormack, the manager of the mall, said Thursday as he stood in the center of Fashion Square.

"Maybe," interjected Steven L. Carter, the lead contractor on the repair job, "there is now."

The two men were proud of their progress. They spoke of 16-hour days, filled with fast work and followed by rounds of inspections and reinspections, of every system, every weld, every foot of crawl space. Not all the repairs were to the structure, which, cosmetic damage aside, had escaped pretty much intact. Work, too, was needed on the psyche of merchants. Some seemed almost paralyzed at first, as though, McCormack said, they "had fallen off the earth, had just lost the plot." He might have been speaking about the whole city.

*

The rebirth here, as everywhere, is hardly complete. On Thursday two huge cranes loomed over the mall. The parking garage was in a pile, waiting to be hauled away. Inside, painters and electricians roamed the main corridor, and the whine of electric saws competed with peppy instrumentals on the sound system. Among the trickle of shoppers were a few who seemed almost stricken by the number of stores still closed for repair.

"It is really sad," one mother said as she watched her 16-month-old daughter stare into the still-closed Disney Store. The little girl was transfixed by a mechanical Minnie Mouse. The mother had her eye on the drywall barricades that blocked entrance to the majority of storefronts. "Maybe they should have waited until more stores were ready or something. Even the drive here was depressing. You see all those apartment houses with so much damage. It just feels like nothing is ever going to be the same again."

But it will be, right?

"Yes," she said, after a pause, "I guess it will."

It won't happen at once. It won't happen soon enough. And yet, eventually, slowly, piece by piece, moment by small moment, a house here, an off-ramp there, a coffee shop, a bank, a mall--it will happen. It is happening.

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