FILLMORE : Rooted in Past, Town Reaches for the Future


Chain-link still guards a stretch of downtown Fillmore, preserving the precise moment six months ago when the earth shook and crippled the city’s commercial core.

Heaps of red brick and mortar are piled high on the sidewalk that lines this slice of the historic business district. Canopies dangle from the row of turn-of-the-century buildings, most so badly fractured that they can’t be occupied.

This is a part of Fillmore frozen in time, a crumbling testament to the savagery of nature and to the vulnerability of buildings put up a long time ago.


But in this oil-and-farm town of 13,000, it is one of the few places where time stands still. Across the street, Central Market is rising from the ground, the first business resurrected since the quake.

More than two dozen shops have reopened along Central Avenue, the still-beating heart of Fillmore’s showcase shopping strip.

Work crews have been busy demolishing the old to make way for the new, leaving a checkerboard of empty lots citywide while preparing the land for buildings stronger and more earthquake-safe than before the Jan. 17 shaker.

Even the theater marquee--which for weeks after the quake continued to promote a film about a mischievous St. Bernard--has finally been changed. It now reads: “The Best Town Ever.”

“It’s a pretty tight community,” said hardware store owner Harvey Patterson, marveling at a recovery unmatched by any other earthquake-ravaged city. “There’s a whole lot of people left who say, ‘This is our town!’ They are making sure that it comes back to life.”

No Ventura County city was shaken more violently than Fillmore six months ago today.

About one-third of the merchants in the city’s downtown business district were displaced. Nearly 700 structures, more than in any other city in the county, were declared off limits or unsafe to enter right after the quake. About 50 of those were jolted so badly that they have had to be demolished.


The quake tested Fillmore’s small-town grit, causing an estimated $250 million in damage and prompting many here to wonder how the city would survive.

But it has survived. And it’s moving forward.

Working together like never before, the city government and the business community wasted little time fashioning a plan to revive the local economy.

Two months after the quake, 18 displaced merchants set up shop in a billowy metal tent and a row of trailers just south of the downtown district. The city poured about $135,000 into the relocation effort.

The city bought the 77-year-old Fillmore Theater in April, sparing the facility from the wrecking ball. Renovation of the movie house is key because it shares common walls with several neighboring businesses.

So far, the city has waived about $30,000 in fees for property owners repairing or rebuilding earthquake-damaged buildings.

The city has even realized some opportunities nonexistent before the quake. Officials plan to use a disaster assistance grant of more than $1 million to build a new City Hall, which will house displaced merchants for a year before city staff members move in.



Fillmore’s rapid recovery has been hailed by dignitaries brought in to survey the damage, including California first lady Gayle Wilson. And it has helped ease concerns that folks would abandon the city, leaving it to dry up and wither away.

“We’ve been able to work more on a one-to-one basis with individual property owners and provide them with a level of service you can’t get anyplace else,” said Jack DeJong, the city building official. “I would hate to be in L. A. and have to sit there for six months before anyone would even talk to me.”

That’s not to say, however, that Fillmore will be the same as before the quake or that concern about the city’s future has vanished.

After all, it is a town deeply rooted in its past. It is a pocket of small-town America in an era of shopping malls and housing tracts. It is a place where family roots grow deep, and where downtown shops have been handed down from one generation to the next.

So for many longtime residents, troubling questions remain about starting from scratch with reconstruction projects that just don’t pencil out financially.

J. Chapman (Chappy) Morris is wondering what to do about the automobile dealership his father founded in 1929. The earthquake caused more than $2 million in damage to the business, forcing Morris to demolish significant chunks of his downtown building.


Morris said he is deciding whether to rebuild at the current location, rebuild on property the family owns off California 126 or leave Fillmore altogether.

“It’s paralysis by analysis, really,” said the 64-year-old Fillmore native. “In some ways, I feel that after six months, I’m not really much further ahead than I was on Jan. 18.”


Harold Balden’s old brick buildings on Central Avenue housed a shoe store, a hair salon and a variety of boutiques. The top floor of one building was host to the all-male Fillmore Club, which is reputed to have met for cards every second Monday of every month since World War I.

When the earthquake hit, Balden lost everything. So much, in fact, that the 91-year-old never bothered to tally his losses. Balden’s buildings have been torn down and he doesn’t plan to rebuild.

“Some of the people think we should rebuild,” he said, noting that it doesn’t make economic sense for him to borrow the $500,000 to $1 million it would take to start over.

“We’re going to lease it. They can build what they want to build.”

Across the street, Ron Stewart has chosen to rebuild the furniture store started by his grandfather 58 years ago. He is pondering a $400,000 loan from the U. S. Small Business Administration, even though he is certain that the reconstruction will last only until the next earthquake.


“Financially, I would probably be better off just dumping the building, leveling it and moving out of town,” he said. “But I’ve lived here all of my life, and I want to continue living here. This is my home.”

In large part, it is that small-town spirit that keeps Fillmore going.

The city--destroyed by fire in 1903, swamped by a flood in 1928 and rocked by at least three strong earthquakes this century--is being pushed into the future by the same folks who have worked so hard to preserve its past.

While residents fled other cities hit hard by the quake, there was no such exodus in Fillmore. Only three businesses have relocated outside of the city, officials said.

Harold Foy, who runs the local U-Haul rental, said few residents have packed up and moved out of town.

“People here have survived floods, they’ve survived fires, and they’ve survived other earthquakes,” he said. “They’re not going to move out of here now.”

Even while waiting for the sun to come up six months ago inside her broken central Fillmore home, Henrietta Zamaripa said she never thought of leaving the city in which she was born and reared.


The earthquake snapped her home in two, trapping Zamaripa and her husband, Andrew, inside. They were so flustered that they didn’t even think of opening a window and slipping out. They stayed in the house until daybreak.

With the help of Rebuild: Hand to Hand, a nonprofit group dedicated to repairing or rebuilding earthquake-damaged homes in Fillmore and Piru, the Zamaripas are getting their place repaired.


Under the direction of the housing group, the Mennonite Disaster Service is rebuilding the couple’s bedroom and doing other work to make the home livable.

“They fixed it so even a hurricane won’t take it,” Henrietta Zamaripa said. “I try not to get too excited, but I’m already looking for carpeting.”

The city has earmarked $525,000 in federal block grant money toward the reconstruction effort, which relies on volunteers such as the Mennonites to whip broken homes back into shape.

“We are Christian folk, and it’s kind of our duty to do it,” said Wes Heinrichs, chairman of the California unit of the Mennonite Disaster Service.


In much the same way, the folks in downtown Fillmore have helped one another out. They have lifted each other up, united in a struggle to bring the commercial area back to life.

Together with other family members, grocer Jesse Segovia has reopened a pool hall on Central Avenue closed just after the quake. Segovia, whose 1911 corner market greets visitors as they enter the one-block downtown core, said he could not stand to see another empty storefront on the main drag.

“I thought another empty building is not going to help us or anyone else,” Segovia said. “I see the downtown coming back, but like anything else it will be kind of a long process.”

For the same reason, Janet Foy last month became the first since the quake to open a new business in the downtown district. Foy, longtime owner of the Fillmore Flower Shop on Central Avenue, opened a clothing store down the street.

Her goal was to spur others to invest in downtown.

“It’s good to have a shaking up once in a while,” she said. “It makes you realize what you’ve got.”