Quake brings the angels back to mean streets of LA: Thousands rushed into the streets and met their neighbours for the first time

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LIKE CHILDREN arriving for the first day in school, we were at last pretending to behave as though we lived in a real city. We stood in the sun to buy tickets from automated ticket machines, pondering the complicated instructions. We listened patiently to the supervisor, who told us not to panic when we saw the large two-tier train, bound for Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, chugging out of the early morning haze. And we happily studied crisp new timetables handed out by company girls in purple T-shirts, who assured us that a new era was about to begin.

It was Friday morning at Burbank's Metrolink station, four days after the worst earthquake in the city's history (6.6 on the Richter scale) ruined thousands of homes and businesses, but, above all else, struck at the heart of its transport system: the freeways.

With several freeway collapses jamming traffic, a small crowd had decided to try something new. Tentatively and full of suspicion, they were about to emulate millions of Londoners and New Yorkers by going to work on a train.

Not that there was much else to compare with the average London commuting experience. The station, tucked away beside the Golden State freeway, without a prominent sign post, had been almost impossible to find, and dozens of seats on our train ('No surfboards permitted') were empty.

But the numbers using the 200-mile Metrolink network shot up last week by more than 6,000 a day. Seismic forces had achieved what millions of government advertising dollars, shootings on the freeways, life-threatening smog and untold wasted hours behind the wheel had failed to do: they had persuaded at least some of Los Angeles' eight million motorists to leave their cars at home and use the underdeveloped, but growing, public transport system.

Before dawn on Monday, Angelenos - for all their bluster about waiting for the long-predicted 'Big One' - received a terrible surprise. The earthquake caught them off-guard spreading confusion and trauma through the city at an official and a personal level.

As if it was any Monday morning, Bill Stephens, director of a language school, drove miles across town to his quake-battered office in the San Fernando Valley - then had to spend an hour looking for milk for his coffee, because most stores were closed. ('I guess I was in denial,' he reflected.) Susan Pearson, a shoe shop manager, charged around trying to find her pet finches, though her apartment building had collapsed, killing 16 of the 50 who died in the disaster. And one of my friends sat in bed as her house pitched around her, singing 'Happy birthday' to her husband. The impact went right to the fault lines that have splintered the ethnically diverse city for generations. At 4.30am on Monday, Los Angeles was the world capital of selfishness, a mecca for young Anglo- Americans seeking a place where the interests of the individual are still largely untrammelled by the rest of society; where people went to don Ray- Bans, fix vanity number plates to their cars and drive without worrying about where to park.

It was also where citizens could buy a gun and hide away from the marauding criminal hordes in high-security apartment blocks or 'gated' communities (privatised, fortified villages, usually with golf course, tennis courts and guarded checkpoints). The immensity of the Los Angeles basin, and its freeway network, helped: there was no need for the moderately well-off to go near impoverished black and Latino ghettos where, if the television news was to be believed, the population seemed to consist of murderers and drug dealers.

But at 4.31am the City of Angels, for the first time for decades, was forced by the brutality of nature to behave like a community. The beating of Rodney King, wild fires, recession, riots and floods had only deepened the gloom that has settled over the city in the past few years. But as the earthquake rocked across southern California, thousands of frightened Angelenos sprang from their beds, rushed into the darkened streets and met their neighbours for the first time.

After the disaster, the more prosperous communities sent food supplies - including a consignment of bagels - to the 20,000 mostly low-income Mexicans, Salvadoreans and others sleeping in cars or tents in the city's parks. Even crime fell sharply. The LA Weekly's Harold Meyerson, one of the least sentimental commentators on the city's affairs, observed: 'Social disorder divides us: we arm, we flee, we vote Republican. Natural disorder unites us: there are no undeserving victims; each has a legitimate claim on our assistance.'

But will it last? Or will Los Angeles give in to its sense of its own apocalyptic fate, consumed by one disaster after another? This sense of doom is becoming increasingly pronounced. The local NPR (National Public Radio) station this week produced a programme called 'Is God punishing Los Angeles?'

The fledgeling return to public transport is a good start, if only because it brings people together. But the chances of maintaining a sense of society in a ghettoised city cannot be great. They were not helped this week by the San Fernando Valley man who queued with crowds of genuinely penniless earthquake victims to apply for federal funds - for repairs to his swimming pool.

Real Life, page 20

(Photograph omitted)