A man for our times

Marvin Schachter celebrates 90 years and reflects on his ‘accidental’ life as a liberal icon 

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 4/24/2014

On the cusp of 90, Marvin Schachter reflects on a life that has inspired countless people around the world, but especially in Pasadena, where his soft voice commands attention and his ideas continue shaping public policy on a litany of crucial issues.  
Schachter’s hearing may be a little fuzzy at times, but his mind remains razor-sharp. Memories of events like the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Era hearings of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the anti-war demonstrations of the ’60s, the nuclear freeze movement of the ’70s and ’80s, and the most recent peace actions over the wars in the Middle East are at his fingertips.
And to think, if not for being fired from one job after his boss learned of a dossier prepared on him over his leftist activities as a student, then taking an even more lucrative job in retail sales, which led Schachter and his family to California from Chicago, none of it might have ever happened.
“It was totally accidental, thanks to the FBI,” Schachter said during a recent interview at his home in Pasadena.
Schachter has been an influential part of most of the major social causes of the past 60 years. He even dabbled in owning his own newspaper, part of a group of investors who founded and owned the Pasadena Weekly in the early 1980s. From student activist in the 1940s to involved senior citizen in the past three decades, Schachter’s affiliations have been many, among them in recent years the International Criminal Court Alliance, the United Nations Association, the California Commission on Aging and the Center for Healthcare Rights, to name just a few. But the organization that he’s maintained the longest relationship with is the American Civil Liberties Union. In fact, Schachter is a lifetime member of the ACLU of Southern California board of directors.
From his student activism, Army service and business and political careers to his loving family, Schachter has lived an extremely full life. He and his wife Ester have two grown daughters, Pamela and Amanda, both of whom are successful in their own right. And he is currently documenting his life through the Pasadena Historical Society’s Oral History Project, run by Ann Scheid.
“Marvin Schachter is the kind of man you want on your team,” wrote Pasadena Weekly columnist Ellen Snortland. “Eyes twinkling, formidable brain whirring, Schachter is a force for good. If you don’t know Marvin — and I’m sorry if you don’t — you are missing out on a role model for yourself and your children.”
Decisive years
The youngest of four children, Schachter grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. He said the tough times of the ’30s were influential years for him in determining the direction of his life. He remembers his father, who was in the furrier trade, being unemployed a good deal of the time. 
“The 1930s was the period of the rise of fascism, the war in Spain, the rise of Hitler in Germany, the beginnings of the anti-Semitic laws that were passed there,” he said. “We lost substantial members of our family during the Holocaust. The ’30s were also the period of the Depression and the rise of the New Deal. I would say that those years were decisive years in determining what I wanted to do.”
He was drafted into the Army in February 1943 and served in military intelligence until his discharge in February 1946. 
“I was a so-called Russian-German expert at 19 years old,” said Schachter. “Sort of ridiculous. That’s what they trained me for. They sent me to University of Chicago and University of Minnesota in uniform.”
Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Schachter soon became very involved in the rising student activism during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. He became active in the American Student Union, a national left-wing organization of college students best known for its protests against militarism. Although he was still in high school, Schachter became a member of the ASU’s national board at the age of 15.
A little more than a year after the war, he received his bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, due in large part to the credit he received from the courses he took through the Army. He began his graduate work in economics at Columbia University in fall 1946. That year he married Doris Donnally, who he met when he was at the University of Chicago.
He helped organize and participated in the march on Albany, opposing quotas for Jews, women and African Americans in graduate courses. He spent six months visiting both African-American and white schools in the South. He attempted to establish statewide student organizations against segregationist Jim Crow laws that were pervasive throughout the South. He served on the preparatory committee for the National Student Association. 
He finished his master’s degree in economics at the University of Colorado and was admitted as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England in 1951. While at Cambridge, he worked under Joan Robinson, who was John Maynard Keyne’s assistant and a prominent economist who wrote a major work on the theory of imperfect competition.
He came back to the United States at the height of the McCarthy Era, also known as communist witch hunts led by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Schachter thought his career path led to academia, but he soon learned there was an FBI file on him because of his student activism.
Rebel with a cause
At that time, Chicago was the center of the television manufacturing industry. Practically every TV in the country was made there. Schachter took a job doing market research for a company called Hallicrafters, which built electronic equipment for the Air Force. However, he was fired when an executive vice president of the company learned about Schachter’s activism in leftist organizations.
“I decided that retail might be a place where they wouldn’t bother me,” said Schachter. “My wife needed medical care and I needed to support her.” So he took a job in a department store, beginning a long and successful career in retail and merchandising.
“I did things that were unusual, like running a single dress advertised in color, which people could buy by mail or telephone and be delivered,” he said. “In those days, department stores had their own delivery systems. I sold thousands of dresses.”
Then tragedy struck. His wife Doris died in 1954 of a collapsed heart. Two years later he met Esther, who was a copywriter in the department store where he worked. The couple married soon after they met.
The May Department Stores Co. offered Schachter a job in Los Angeles. Soon after arriving, he saw a notice in a “throwaway newspaper, sort of like the LA Weekly” of an American Friends Service Committee meeting in Pasadena. The local chapter of the Quaker organization was run by Catherine Cory, a leader in social action organizations who was well connected with the California Democratic Council.
“It was the beginnings of all kinds of things,” Schachter said of his friendship with Cory. 
Eason Monroe, executive director of the ACLU California, invited Schachter to join the board of directors of the ACLU in 1958, and Schachter has been a member ever since. In that board’s bylaws, he is written in as the only lifetime member. He became president of the ACLU of Southern California in 1971 and served on the organization’s national board for 17 years. He played a key role in having the ACLU adopt civil rights as a major part of its program.
“My membership on the ACLU board always continued,” he said. “That’s always been my anchor organization.”
Back in the ’80s, Schachter also hosted a weekly 15-minute radio program on KPFK that dealt with domestic and foreign policy issues. Also around that time, he joined the board of directors of a company that founded the Pasadena Weekly. He wrote an occasional column for the paper on current affairs, as he does to this day.
Many hats
After leaving May Co., he continued his lucrative career as a successful retail executive for other department stores. But, “Around 1978 I decided that this accidental life,” one created by coming under suspicion by the FBI, “that I had established in the retail business was not where I wanted to spend my life,” he said.
Schachter left retail and set up a real estate company that built homes and condominiums in Pasadena. But his social and political activism continued. He became vice chair of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, which was headquartered at All Saints Church, and played a leadership role in the California nuclear freeze movement. He served as chair of a steering committee that organized all of the state’s disabled communities, making their cause a common one.
In the ’90s he became involved with the senior community, serving as a governor’s appointment to the California Commission on Aging, and he has served as chair of the Senior Advocacy Council of Pasadena and president of the LA County Agency on Aging Advisory Council.
‘The issues continue’
After a lifetime of fighting the good fight, one would be justified in taking it easy and enjoying retirement. Schachter, however, isn’t ready for that.
“As long as I can I’m going to stay as active as I can,” he said. “It really stems from the issues. Unfortunately, issues don’t disappear. War and peace issues are always with us. Nuclear arms issues, unemployment, hunger are always with us. The issues continue.”
Looking back, Schachter said it’s as if everything in his life happened yesterday. He also said he was flabbergasted at how many meetings he’s attended.
“I’m happiest with the fact that I’ve been involved,” he said. “I think I did make significant contributions to important movements at crucial times.”
Kris Ockershauser, former president of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter, has known Schachter for 40 years.
“Marvin has been the steady, knowledgeable helping hand,” said Ockershauser. “The great thing about working with him is that, in addition to his historical knowledge of and participation in civil liberties issues here and nationally, he’s right there in the trenches with you … and at 90 he still is. He’s been a real gift to hundreds if not thousands of Southern Californians working to advance social and economic justice over the last half century. Not only has he created a legacy that inspires the next generations to continue the work, he’s also a dear and fine person to know.” 

Just in time

USGS, Caltech and others are developing a system that will issue warnings moments before an earthquake

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 4/17/2014

Last month a magnitude 4.4 earthquake reminded everyone to get prepared for the inevitable Big One on the way. Scientists now say that in the next 30 years there is a 60 percent chance that an earthquake equal to or greater than the magnitude 6.8 Northridge earthquake will hit the Los Angeles area. 
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of system in place to warn people before the earth starts shaking? Doug Givens of the US Geological Survey in Pasadena is working on a program that will do just that.
“The basic concept is early warning, not earthquake prediction,” said Givens, coordinator of the Earthquake Early Warning System. “It is simply sensing and characterizing an earthquake that has already begun very rapidly. That gives you the ability to send warnings out in advance of the arrival of the strong shaking, which moves at about two miles per second through the Earth. We can communicate at the speed of light. So if you can detect the earthquake very fast, you can send a warning out to people in the surrounding area.”
Givens is working with scientists from Caltech, UC Berkeley and University of Washington in developing the system. There are currently test users trying out the demonstration system before it is released to the general public. Their biggest obstacle, however, is funding.
“The technology works,” Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) recently wrote on Facebook. “For example, test users in Pasadena had about four seconds warning before the shaking (from March 17’s earthquake) was felt in their area. Not much, but depending on how far away the epicenter is, the warning time may be greater and even a few seconds can mean the difference between finding cover and getting injured. Now it’s time to build the system — a relatively small investment that will save lives and pay for itself many times over the first time we have a major quake. I’m confident we’ll build the system — it’s just a matter of whether we’re going to do it before or after the next big quake. I’ll be fighting for a greater federal investment so we can be ready.”
So how much time will you get before the earthquake hits? It completely depends on how far away you are from the earthquake and how rapidly the system can send you the alert.
“Time is of the essence,” said Givens. “That’s why you need a lot of sensors (around Southern California) so you have some that are close to where any potential earthquake can occur. The amount of warning time can be anywhere from zero if you’re very, very close to the event to up to 90 seconds if it’s a very big earthquake and you happen to be very far away.”
Givens and his team are looking at every available possibility in terms of delivering the early warning, including cell phones, television, radio, computers, public address systems, highway signs, maybe even those old air raid sirens.
“The distribution will be over every means that we can find,” said Givens. “Everything that we can do in a practical sense we’ll try to do.”

‘Food Justice’

Pasadena’s Health Department, local organizations and community gardens aim to flood the city’s ‘food deserts’ with affordable, quality food

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 4/17/2014

As head of the city of Pasadena’s Public Health Department, Dr. Eric Walsh has worked tirelessly to combat issues associated with ensuring Pasadena provides food justice to its people. 
Food justice?
“When we talk about food justice, we’re talking about an individual’s rights, their access to affordable, healthy, accessible foods,” Walsh explained. “It shouldn’t matter where you live or what neighborhood you’re in. In every neighborhood, you should have access to the foods that’s going to build your body and mind.”
Unfortunately, not every neighborhood in Pasadena has access to those kinds of foods. Walsh pointed out that Northwest Pasadena in particular is what’s known as a food desert, or a heavily populated area with very few — if any — healthy, affordable food options. There’s a Vons supermarket anchored at Orange Grove Boulevard and North Fair Oaks Avenue, and a Super King Market at North Lake Avenue and Washington Boulevard, also on Northwest Pasadena. However, there is little else but liquor stores between those two locations, which are two miles apart.
“If you’re somewhere without transportation or you’re relying on public transportation or walking to buy your groceries, that’s a challenge,” said Walsh. “We call those areas food deserts. There seems to be one in a large swath between Lake and Lincoln [Avenue], and Orange Grove all the way up into Altadena. Individuals in those neighborhoods have less access to affordable, quality foods. Lots of corner stores, lots of liquor stores, but there’s not a lot of offerings of fresh produce and low-cost, high-quality foods.”
Organizations working to remedy this problem include Muir Ranch at John Muir High School. Here, a community of student farmers encourages urban agriculture and gets kids interested in healthy foods. Walsh said that work has to be done to reverse the marketing of junk food and fast food that is geared especially towards young minorities and lower-income people.
There are other community gardens as well, such as the one at Harambee Community Center on the corner of Howard Street and Navarro Avenue, and a new one at the Villa-Parke Community Center. 
“We’re hoping to figure out systems to harvest and distribute foods from these community gardens but also from the urban forest that we have here in Pasadena, where a lot of people in their homes actually do produce a lot of good produce and fruits,” said Walsh.
In November, the City Council voted unanimously to change its backyard chickens ordinance, allowing more people to legally keep hens in their yard. Walsh said the move will allow people to produce their own fresh eggs — another step toward food justice.
There are others committed to transforming the food desert in Northwest as well, such as Marco and Michelle Barrantes of La Loma Development Company, a sustainable design and urban landscape architecture firm. Their headquarters are located at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Washington Boulevard, right in the middle of a large “desert.” Walsh praised their efforts to transform that neighborhood, which include plans for a food commissary on the property.
“With the food commissary we’ll help with the food desert problem in this area,” said Marco Barrantes. “There are a lot of people who walk by here from the different schools, there’s the business park and some city offices, so there’s a lot of people here and there’s no food. We want to solve that. By becoming more of a presence here we hope to change this derelict, no man’s zone that this corner was.”
Walsh said that food justice is related to class and race, not only in Pasadena, but in America in general.
“One of the things about food justice that you have to look at is some of the fast-food chains and soda companies have targeted certain neighborhoods,” he said. “They go into lower-income, more minority neighborhoods to sell their products because they’re inexpensive calories. Look at the concentration of fast food joints in certain neighborhoods. You cross Orange Grove on Fair Oaks, there’s a Church’s Chicken, Louisiana Fried Chicken and just past the Health Department there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken. There’s not much else. What could be done about that?”
To help combat this problem, the city offers such grant-funded programs as WIC, or Women, Infants, and Children, a supplemental food, nutrition education and breastfeeding support program in which registered dieticians work with some of the poorest families in town. They offer nutrition counseling, access to healthy foods and monthly vouchers for farmer’s markets to over 5,000 clients in the Pasadena area.
“Most importantly, we have to give a voice to the people up here (in Northwest Pasadena),” said Walsh. “Especially our Latino and African-American populations. They have to be empowered to speak. There’s less input coming from here. First and foremost it’s their voice that needs to sound loud in this part of town.”

Top Cop

Six candidates looking to replace former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca trade barbs, ideas for reform at Pasadena forum  

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 4/10/2014

Six of the seven candidates running for Los Angeles County Sheriff presented themselves as reform candidates at a forum held Sunday at a church in Pasadena.
For the most part, former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez, Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and LAPD Detective Lou Vince agreed on such things as limiting federal immigration enforcement in local jails, reducing the use of force by deputies, inviting civilian oversight of the department, doing a better job at background checks on newly hired deputies and applying common sense approaches to the department’s late-night detainee release policy.
But agreements did not stop three of the six from taking jabs at Tanaka for the central role he played in the corruption scandal that has resulted in a federal investigation, the retirement of Sheriff Lee Baca and Tanaka’s own resignation as undersheriff.
When all the candidates were asked how they would assess the performance of their predecessor, most had nothing but praise for Baca, but the general consensus was “[Baca] trusted the wrong people,” said Hellmold, who served as Baca’s personal driver and was commander in charge of inspecting jail operations following a special committee’s findings that the jails were a virtual breeding ground for corruption and other bad behavior by deputies.
“With all due respect, there’s someone running for sheriff who was in command of the very jail facility that this alleged misconduct and excessive force occurred,” Hellmold said of Tanaka. “It’s one thing to call yourself a whistleblower after the fact,” as Tanaka has described himself, “but, meanwhile, you had three years of alleged misconduct.”
An estimated 200 people attended the event, which was presented by Neighborhood Unitarian-Universalist Church and All Saints Church. The forum at Neighborhood Church was sponsored by the ACLU-SoCal and Pasadena/Foothills chapters, the political action group ACT, All of Us or None, the Armenian Community Coalition, Common Cause, Dignity and Power Now, Justice Not Jails, the LA Progressive, the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, the NAACP Pasadena Branch, the Pasadena Latino Coalition and the Pasadena United Democratic Headquarters.
The forum was moderated by Pasadena Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich and Deputy Editor André Coleman.
Despite his shots at Tanaka, Hellmold found himself on the hot seat after claiming there were no gangs in the department. 
“I do not believe that our deputies are gang members. I will demand that the next sheriff will not call out deputies that are on the front lines risking their lives for the community by calling them gang members,” Hellmold stated.
Taken aback by Hellmold’s assertion, Coleman asked the candidate to clarify. “Did you make the statement that there are no gangs in the Sheriff’s Department?” Coleman asked.
“That is correct,” said Hellmold. “I do not believe that our deputies are gang members.”
Coleman asked the other candidates if this was an opinion that they shared, which touched off a long discussion about gang-like behavior exhibited by some deputies. All of the other candidates acknowledged that this type of behavior has existed and continues to exist within the department.
“You can call it gangs. You can call it cliques, whatever you want. Anytime that you have people operating in concert with one another in a manner that is contrary to society’s expectations of its law enforcement officers, it should be dealt with swiftly and harshly,” said Tanaka.
Rogers pointed out that deputies who are part of these cliques get tattoos, which are numbered and require sponsorship. These emblems must be earned through unprofessional behavior, he said. Not everyone can get them, which Rogers said is a very divisive practice within the organization. 
“We have these cliques, and anyone who denies it is living in a fantasyland,” Rogers said.
Two of the candidates — Rogers and Gomez — mentioned that they’d be willing to lift their pant legs and show that they did not have a gang tattoo. Tanaka admitted that he has a tattoo, which represented his membership in the Lynwood Vikings, a notorious sheriff’s gang. In 1996, a federal judge deemed the Vikings a neo-Nazi white supremacist gang. Tanaka is Asian American. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles County paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle lawsuits regarding what was termed “racially-motivated hostile activity” by the Vikings. Tanaka said the Viking was a mascot of the station beginning in the 1980s.
“Yes, I do have a tattoo,” said Tanaka, who is also mayor of Gardena. “No, I never was ever part of a gang. It did not become sinister until years later, and if I had known then what I know now, I would have gotten a different tattoo.”
The six candidates — and former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, who had a scheduling conflict and could not attend — are running to replace Baca, who in February resigned amid one of the worst scandals in the department’s history. Since January, 20 deputies have been indicted by a federal grand jury on a number of allegations, among them police brutality in the county’s jails and a conspiracy to prevent an FBI informant from testifying in front of the grand jury. The scandal also forced Tanaka out of the department.
On Sunday, the six candidates praised Baca for his education programs and work with the homeless and mentally ill. 
Three of the candidates — Hellmold, Rogers and Tanaka — were major figures in the department during the corruption scandal. The three men were members of the sheriff’s command staff, with Hellmold and Rogers serving as assistant sheriffs. Tanaka was the undersheriff, or the No. 2 man in the department.
“My focus was on my command, which was a patrol station in South Los Angeles,” said Hellmold. “When the allegations of misconduct and excessive force occurred in the jails, I was brought in after the fact as a commander to implement the reforms, working with the jails commission, which has been very successful.”
The Los Angeles County Citizens’ Committee on Jail Violence was formed in 2011 to investigate longstanding claims that deputies in county jails routinely beat inmates and committed other crimes while on duty. The panel, which included McDonnell, heavily criticized Baca and Tanaka for what it called a failure of leadership. The panel made 60 recommendations for improvement and accountability, including the hiring of an inspector general to keep watch over the department. McDonnell has said all of his fellow jail violence board members — chaired by former federal Judge Lourdes G. Baird and including fellow retired US District judges Robert C. Bonner of Pasadena, Dickran Tevrizian, also a local resident, and Carlos Moreno, who served as a US District judge before becoming a state Supreme Court associate justice — have endorsed his candidacy.
“I’ve been an outsider of this organization for 15 years,” said Rogers, who also serves as mayor of Lakewood. “I never took a coin. I never smoked the cigars. I never did any of that BS stuff.” 
When asked why he didn’t come forward about his concerns with Baca’s leadership until now, Tanaka said Baca committed no crimes. “Unless your boss is committing a crime, which I would have no hesitation in reporting,” there was nothing to report, said Tanaka. “Short of that, our differences were largely and wholly philosophical as it related to the management and leadership in the department. We had our differences. I did my best to challenge the sheriff when I thought he lost focus, when I thought he was not engaged, when I thought he was compromising the hiring and promotion practices, and I made my voice as clear as I possibly could.”
Afterwards, a number of people told the Weekly that the presentation will influence their vote on June 3.
“I went expecting to support Olmstead, who didn’t bother to show up,” Lamb told the Weekly. “I had ruled out Rogers, as he was still employed at the LASD, but his work reforming the department since the interim sheriff [former Orange County Undersheriff John Scott] took over and his career-long stance against corruption has won me over. I will either vote for him or Gomez, who was retaliated against by Sheriff Baca for his strong reformist stands.”
Alex Keledjian, a former candidate for the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees, said the forum helped him decide who he was going to vote for.
“I definitely left the forum more informed,” Keledjian said. “Based on his experience and plan for the LASD, I plan on voting for Jim McDonnell.” 
“I think the most important learning that came from the candidate debate was hearing the candidates support civilian oversight of their departments and that they acknowledge that transparency is key to public trust and confidence,” said All Saints Church’s Creative Connections Director Juliana Serrano.
The candidates agreed on the need for civilian oversight of the department, but said the usefulness of the Office of Independent Review (OIR) — an idea developed by Baca in which lawyers assessed the performances of the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies on major cases and incidents involving officer-involved shootings — has run its course 
Last month, Pasadena Police Chief Philip Sanchez announced that shootings involving officers of his department will now be investigated by the Sheriff’s Department.
“Transparency in law enforcement is vital to public trust,” said Tanaka. “There has to be civilian oversight. As it relates to Pasadena, I think the OIR lost its objectivity when its members and the sheriff became too close. I also think the Sheriff’s Department would do a very fine job for the people of Pasadena in working closely with the police department here.” 

Overdue tribute

by Andre Coleman, Pasadena Weekly, Apr 3, 2014

Joan Williams, the longtime Pasadena resident who was named Miss Crown City 1958 but snubbed after it was learned Williams is African American, will be honored at a special gala dinner Saturday at the Western Justice Center in Pasadena.
Congresswoman Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, was expected to present awards to Williams, as well as fellow honorees restaurateur Robin Salzer for the free dinner program he sponsors at the Jackie Robinson Center and Villa-Parke Community Center, and Webster Guillory, tax assessor of Orange County and the first black person elected to county office.
The event is sponsored by the Pasadena-based nonprofit Men Educating Men About Health, MEMAH.
In 1958 Williams was selected by her coworkers at City Hall to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City, which was a Rose Queen-like honor at the time. Some of the perks of that position included riding on the city’s float in the Rose Parade, cutting ribbons at store openings and participating in other civic events.
Williams has a light complexion, so many people thought she was Caucasian. She alleges that when the city found out that she was African American, they canceled the city’s float, called off her remaining public appearances and the mayor at the time refused to take a photo with her. After she returned to work, her city co-workers ostracized her.
The story about Williams being disrespected by the city, “Beauty and the Beasts,” by Justin Chapman, appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of the Pasadena Weekly. Chapman will introduce Williams at the MEMAH event. 
“Unfortunately,” said MEMAH founder Jim Morris, “neither the city nor anyone from the city took action on this, never acknowledged [Williams] or reached out to her or apologized to her for that terrible incident in 1958. So we are going to honor her ourselves.”
Councilman John Kennedy will attend the event along with Council members Jacque Robinson, Steve Madison and Terry Tornek.
 “I think this is an opportunity for the city of Pasadena to be bigger than its past to acknowledge that a wrong was committed and show that healing is important in building one community and just saying we are sorry for the injustice that occurred that probably would be sufficient for the family,” said Kennedy. “For the community, we have to insure that narrow-thinking individuals do not have sway in terms of what is good for Pasadena.” 

Flirting With Disaster

It’s been 20 years since the Northridge earthquake, the costliest disaster in U.S. history. And perhaps nowhere more than here in the Valley, the occasion has us thinking about the next “Big One.” Amidst the release of reports of collapse-prone concrete buildings, including dozens in the Valley, local disaster experts insist we are better prepared—but caution that we should all be ready to fend for ourselves.

By Justin Chapman, Ventura Blvd. Magazine, April 2014

There was a loud bang…like an explosion, and Kevin Uhrich was thrown off the sofa, landing facedown on the floor as the earth shook violently. Kevin, editor of Pasadena Weekly, at the time was a reporter living in Sherman Oaks. He’d had an argument with his then-girlfriend and was sleeping on a friend’s couch that night.

“I grabbed a pillow, covered my head and crawled under the coffee table until it subsided an eternal 30 seconds or more later,” says Kevin. “After the shaking stopped, I threw on my shoes and ran out to the car. Storefront windows near the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura were shattered, with shards of glass strewn everywhere. A cacophony of security alarms and car horns filled the air. Power lines further down the street had fallen. Street lights were out. Portions of the street had buckled and cracked, and underground water mains had ruptured. It was surreal.”

That morning, January 17, 1994, the magnitude 6.8 Northridge earthquake shook Southern California for half a minute, killing more than 60 people, including 16 residents who lost their lives when an apartment building on Reseda Boulevard collapsed. At least 10,000 people were injured, and the quake caused more than $20 billion in damage. 

Freeway ramps fell, streets cracked wide open and houses tumbled down hillsides. A total of 65,000 residential structures sustained damage. 

For many Valley residents, the nightmare continued for weeks afterwards. Displaced residents, barred by police from returning to their taped-off dwellings, lived in “tent cities” in local parks. Thousands of aftershocks, felt as far away as Las Vegas, continued to rattle nerves.

“I was one of the very few people outside at the time, and I had the entire street to myself,” says Kevin. “It was like a scene from the twilight zone. It was as though parts of Studio City and Sherman Oaks had been bombed, and I was the only person to survive. I finally made it to our apartment, which really got whacked, and ran inside—ignoring people yelling at me to stay outside—but my girlfriend was gone. I finally found her among the other frightened tenants gathered in the parking lot, and she was okay, but all of our stuff—TV, stereo, furniture, personal items—was ruined. Our apartment building was red-tagged, and everything in our unit was destroyed.”

Since that devastating temblor, the city of Los Angeles has examined how to be better prepared and increase public safety. One of the biggest challenges has been how to deal with building safety. 

“Just because the Valley bore the brunt of the last ‘Big One’ doesn’t mean it will be exempt from the next one. Like lightning, earthquakes can strike the same place twice. Or more, for that matter.” 

The city has grappled with an affordable way to make buildings safer, an unresolved issue that was recently magnified when researchers at the University of California presented the city with a list of pre-1976 concrete buildings that could be at risk in a strong earthquake. According to the study, some of the buildings, dozens of which are in the Valley and include schools and retail stores, have a high chance of collapsing or otherwise endangering life in a major quake. 

The Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) is also getting involved by trying to evaluate exactly which of the structures are the most dangerous. Researchers estimate that only 75 of the 1,500 buildings would actually collapse, but they can’t identify which 75. 

City officials are also trying to figure out how to fund retrofitting the buildings, many of which are privately owned. The city can’t afford to do it; some officials are lobbying for help from the state.

“Following the Northridge earthquake, teams of engineers from the California Structural Engineers Association together with the LADBS examined and evaluated multiple damaged buildings to determine what, if any, improvements should be made to the city’s building codes to improve the performance of these building types in future seismic events,” explains Luke Zamperini, spokesperson for the LADBS. 

“This effort resulted in seven retrofit ordinances being passed by the city council. Two of these ordinances were mandatory programs for damaged steel-frame buildings and all concrete tilt-up buildings. The remaining five ordinances are voluntary programs for wood-frame residential buildings, older concrete-framed buildings, and concrete or reinforced masonry buildings with wood diaphragms.”

He adds that the building, mechanical, electrical and plumbing codes are updated approximately every three years. Improving disaster response has also been addressed. However, the consensus from city officials seems to be that no matter what we do, another major earthquake could cause even more casualties and damage than the Northridge quake. And government agencies, no matter how well-prepared, will not be able to help everyone in need. 


Faulty Lines

There are more than 10 major faults in Southern California capable of producing devastating earthquakes, according to research geophysicist Robert Graves, who studies earthquake seismology for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). 

“It’s pretty difficult to be in Southern California and not be somewhat close to an active earthquake fault,” he says. “Clearly the closer you are to an active fault or a fault that produces an earthquake, the more the ground shakes and the more chance of damage.”

Just because the Valley bore the brunt of the last “Big One” doesn’t mean it will be exempt from the next one. Like lightning, earthquakes can strike the same place twice. Or more, for that matter.

“Since we don’t know exactly which fault will produce the next damaging earthquake, I can’t say there’s a better place or worse place ,” says Robert, “and that’s just based on the active faults that we know about. There are probably other geologic faults that are buried under the surface that have not been identified. That certainly occurred with the Northridge fault. It hadn’t been recognized as an active fault prior to that earthquake because it is what’s called a buried fault. If you’re looking at the geology on the ground, there’s no clear evidence of a fault being there.”


Close Calls

In fact, in the last year more than 300 measurable earthquakes hit Los Angeles, including the Valley, ranging from magnitude 1.5 to 4. As recently as the morning of January 17, the anniversary of the Northridge quake, a magnitude 2.6 quietly shook the Valley. That quake was centered about two miles west of Universal City at a depth of 0.1 miles, according to USGS.

“We can record down to magnitude 2 or 3, and there are some even smaller that are not even recorded,” Robert says. “There are magnitude 2.5 to 3 earthquakes each day, and well over 1,000 a year. Earthquakes really are going on all the time.”

So what, exactly, will the “Big One” be like? It depends.

“The Northridge magnitude would be called a moderate magnitude,” says Robert. “A couple of years ago there was an earthquake off the coast of Japan that was a magnitude 9 . In that sense, Northridge really was not that significant, just looking at a geologic classification.” 

But because it was centered in a heavily populated area, it was more impactful.

Southern California does have faults that are capable of producing larger earthquakes, up to magnitude 8. In 1857 a magnitude 7.9 ruptured off the San Andreas Fault. Robert says that if a repeat of that quake were to occur, it would have widespread consequences.

One thing is fairly certain: At some point in the near future, there will be another magnitude 6.8 or higher. In fact, seismologists have determined that there is a 60% chance of an earthquake equal to or worse than Northridge hitting Southern California in the next 30 years. 

“It is unpredictable, especially in a very specific sense, what day or what hour or what year even,” says Robert. “But in a more general sense, it’s clear we have active faults, they will produce earthquakes, they’re producing earthquakes every day of a small magnitude, and in the future they will produce large, potentially damaging earthquakes.”


Look out for #1

So are we prepared for the “Big One?” Chris Ipsen, public information officer for LA’s Emergency Management Department, says the Valley has come a long way since 1994.

“The building codes have improved since then,” he says. “After every large earthquake, engineers go out and look at how the buildings did, and they’re doing better. The Valley doesn’t have a lot of skyscrapers, so it’s probably better off than other parts of LA.”

Interestingly, Chris points out that some technological advances could hamper rather than help during an emergency. “Society is now more reliant on gadgets and devices like smartphones. We rely on telecommunications more, but we don’t have regulations as a way of seismically securing cell phone towers. We don’t know how many will be up and running after an earthquake.” 

He continues, “Also, grocery stores now operate under just-in-time delivery systems.” Under that new system, grocery stores only keep a three- or four-day supply of food in their storage warehouses.

Chris says his department has developed relationships with businesses like large retailers, as well as other sectors such as financial, faith-based, manufacturing and the movie industry. “The movie industry is a big player for us because it has huge resources. We work closely with Universal. We want to have the capabilities to deploy those resources quickly.”

Despite all this, Chris emphasizes the importance of individuals being pro-active. “The better prepared people are to take care of themselves, the more we can take care of heavy-impact areas and the ones who don’t have resources. Community resilience is a big word now,” he says. 

“We have a five-step program to help people get their neighborhood ready. You may not have any first responders coming in. The city has a lot of resources, but we’re just concerned that we can’t get to everybody.”

Captain Keith Scott of the LA Fire Department, who was a firefighter at the time of the Northridge quake, was less than a mile from the epicenter. He and his fellow firefighters were thrown out of bed at Fire Station 72 on De Soto Avenue and Vanowen Street.

“It was quite a big jolt,” he remembers, agreeing that much has changed since 1994. “We’ve trained many people since then. We have nationally-ranked search and rescue teams that we didn’t have before. They respond to incidents all over the world.”


Citizen Responders

Meanwhile volunteer groups are ready to spring into action. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which trains civilians in emergency preparedness, was formed locally in the late 1980s. 

Captain Scott serves as the CERT commander for LA, which trains 4,000 people every year. About half of those people live in the Valley.

“Our CERT program was originally developed because there was a need for a well-trained citizen workforce,” he says. “We saw a need after seeing many disasters happening throughout the world, and we took a look at what would happen in LA—that our fire department would be very taxed. We thought there was a need for citizens to be trained to take care of themselves for anywhere from three days to a week.”

The free, 17-hour CERT course—taken over seven weeks—includes fire prevention and suppression techniques, disaster medical operations, how to deal with casualties and triage, rescue operations, and disaster psychology. Getting CERT-certified is the most important thing someone can do to prepare, according to Captain Scott.

“First thing we’ll do is make sure our personnel are okay, and then we’ll get all our equipment out of the station and to a safe place so we can use it. Then we will drive around our first-in area (district responsible for). There are certain things that we’ll look for, like collapsed buildings and bridges. We’ll check places like hospitals and convalescent homes. It’s quite a comprehensive check. Unless there’s a life-threatening injury, we try not to commit ourselves to any one incident until we check everything in our first-in area.”

For instance, the collapse of Northridge Meadows Apartments, which caused the death of 16 residents, is an example of an incident that the fire department would immediately respond to. But for the less serious calls, your neighbors and even strangers may become the first responders.

Captain Scott advises stocking up on water, food, bandages, clothing, batteries and other emergency supplies and to have extras on hand for others. “The main thing you need to do is make a plan on what you’re going to do. Have a contact outside the city so you can let them know you’re okay. Put together a go-bag. Have one at home, one in your car and one at work, because you never know where you’re going to be when it hits.” 

For a list of the next available CERT classes, visit cert-la.com.


Are You Prepared? 

When the next big earthquake hits, expect to fend for yourself for at least a week. Basic necessities like electricity, gas and running water may not be available. And you may not be able to contact anyone for a while. Here are a few simple steps to prepare, from the California Department of Conservation.

Before an earthquake (now):

Stock up on water, food and supplies, including a first aid kit, pet food, baby food, games for kids, a battery-operated radio, extra batteries, a fire extinguisher—or an earthquake kit.

Make sure you know how to use your fire extinguisher.

Sign up for emergency alerts from your local emergency management agency.

Visit ready.gov for strategies to build an emergency kit and put a plan in place.

Get trained by your local Community Emergency Response Team. Visit fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams to find your local CERT.

When the earthquake hits:

If you’re inside, stay inside and get under and hold onto a desk or table. If you’re outside, get into the open, away from buildings or anything that could fall on you. Cover your neck with your arms and hands.

If you’re driving, pull your car out of traffic and stop. Avoid bridges and overpasses. Stay clear of signs, trees and power lines.

Check the gas main leading to the house and shut off the power if there’s electrical damage.

Listen to the radio for updates and instructions.

If you leave your house, let someone know where you’re going.



2-3 Earthquakes occur in Southern California every single day (Robert Graves, USGS earthquake seismologist)

10 Major fault lines that crisscross Southern California, all with the potential for producing damaging earthquakes

80,000–125,000 People temporarily or permanently displaced because of property damage following the Northridge earthquake

$25 billion Damage costs from the Northridge quake (National Institute of Standards and Technology)

$20 Price per battery at a 7-Eleven store on Devonshire after quake

60% Probability that an earthquake measuring greater or equal to 6.8 will occur in Southern California in the next 30 years

75 Estimated number of pre-1976 concrete buildings in Los Angeles that UC researchers believe would collapse in the event of a  a major earthquake (University of California study)

300 Fault maps yet to be completed by the California Geological Survey, including ones for highly populated areas like LA’s Westside and the San Gabriel Valley (LA Times). And the mapping budget is about to run out—really bad news since the state’s strict earthquake building regulations only apply to faults that have been zoned by the maps. State Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has called on the legislature to provide more funding to complete the maps.

72 People dead & 11,846 People treated for quake-related injuries in LA, Ventura and Orange counties after the Northridge earthquake, (according to figures compiled by Michael Durkin and published in the state Division of Mines and Geology in 1995)