NORTHRIDGE : Neighborhood Gets Morale Boost at Party

While a demolition crew labored away across the street in the rubble of the now-infamous Northridge Meadows Apartments complex, more than 400 residents of a small neighborhood less than a mile from the epicenter of the Jan. 17 earthquake gathered to celebrate a resurgence of spirit.

Exactly nine monthsafter the quake left many grieving for their loved ones, homes and places of business, the residents turned out for a block party of sorts at the Northridge Garden Plaza parking lot. The event, which featured live music, food and lots of coffee, lasted the whole day.

To residents whose lives are haunted by memories of Northridge Meadows, where 16 of their neighbors died during the quake, the party symbolized that life might be back to normal soon.

"We walked away with a feeling that everything was going to be OK," said Judy Castro, a community resident for 19 years. "It sure put me in the mood to decorate for the holidays. We've seen some pretty ugly times, but we all agreed that we could get on with our lives."

The party was coordinated by Jackie Jones, owner of Jones Coffee Co., a gourmet coffee store that recently reopened in the mall after months of rebuilding. It was planned to boost the community's morale as the holidays approach, she said.

"I've been in business here for 15 years," Jones said. "During that time, my regular customers have been like family. They've given me support when I needed it and were delighted to see my store functioning again."

Still living in a trailer while the more than $140,000 worth of damage to her home is being dealt with, Jones invested about $60,000 of her savings to get her shop of gourmet coffees, teas and ceramic gift items off the ground again.

With the help of a $31,000 Small Business Administration loan, the Jones Coffee Co. became one of five of the mall's 22 earthquake-damaged businesses to re-hang an Open sign in its window before the end of spring.

"Our community has been devastated for nine months," Jones said. "Most people are still without homes. I wanted to motivate them to begin rebuilding the rest of their lives."

The fact is, however, the motivation was already there.

Happy to see some semblance of business activity renewed amid the shards of walls and chimneys, the "ghost town" community immediately surrounding Northridge Meadows rallied around the businesses and helped them rebuild by simply frequenting them more often.

Castro praised Jones and the other business owners for their fortitude in the face of the devastation that had led to "Notice of Abandonment" and "For Lease" signs pasted across most of the other store windows.

"Our streets still look horrible," Castro said. "There has not been much spirit in the neighborhood with what we have to see everyday. People don't want to see this. They want to conduct their lives as they were before everything happened. That is what these and other businesses reopened in the area allowed us to do.

"With the great turnout (for the Oct. 17 party), we were able to recapture our spirit in time for the holidays. People were able to tell each other that everything is OK, we're going to make it."

Tom Davies, a resident of four years, agrees.

"Our morale is high now," he said. "We plan on throwing a series of block parties now that we all know each other more intimately.

"Our street is going to throw one as soon as half of the houses are finished with repairs. We plan on going from home to home to see what everyone else did."

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