Gaye LeBaron: The 1969 quakes and Santa Rosa’s long bid to rebuild
I’ve written a lot about change lately - how World War II changed Sonoma County, how the community’s relationship to the police has changed - so much change in fact that a friend said last week, “I’m getting really tired of the word ‘change.’”
OK. Let’s try “earthquake?”
That word comes up so often in the ongoing discussions about the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, there is danger that it will become false history. Often spoken with complete conviction and assumed authority, it is said that the decision to put the street through the middle was made “after the 1969 earthquake knocked the courthouse down.”
That’s dramatic. But it isn’t true. The courthouse had been gone for six years and Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues had been conjoined almost as long, when the most damaging earthquake in the nation that year - two of them, actually, separated by 83 minutes and the smallest fraction of a point difference - set up Santa Rosa’s central district for its most extensive make-over since 1906.
With talk of earthquakes all around - Japan, Nicaragua most recently, and the brutally vivid map in the newspaper last month showing where the fault lies - it is worth a look back at the true impact of the twin quakes of Oct. 1, 1969, and the redevelopment they set in motion.
This went way beyond the courthouse square. Way beyond.
By the numbers: 101 buildings demolished, including 13 hotels (two large and 11 smaller, displacing several hundred full-time tenants).
Some landmarks were saved, refitted at considerable expense. At least one, the classic 1910 post office, wandered off, moved ever so slowly to Seventh Street to become our museum.
And, after 12 long years of controversy, 21 lawsuits, dozens of “Committees to Save” - the Occidental and Santa Rosa hotels, the California Theater, Levin’s Hardware, the missing sections of Fourth and Fifth streets - and literally hundreds of outraged letters to the editor and, finally, at long last “The Mall,” as we old folk still refer to the Santa Rosa Plaza, was open for business.
I sat down last week with the man in the middle of it all. In ’69, Ken Blackman was the city’s community development director, navigating an Urban Renewal project that had been underway since 1959.
As the earth shook and the veteran officials around him faded away - all too literally - Blackman, still in his 30s, was about to became a major player in the post-earthquake drama and a central figure in the city’s 20th century history.
Setting the scene for us last week, Blackman recalled that “Santa Rosa was a small community in ’69. No one took things too seriously. Life moved at a relatively slow pace, including city government. It was almost like clicking a light switch when the earthquake happened.”
He was right about that. City fathers were going about their business, which included a federally-funded renewal project begun some 10 years earlier which had redeveloped land, including the old Chinatown, between Third Street and the creek, Santa Rosa Avenue and E Street.
The southern edge became the site of a new city hall, built in the mid-60s over Santa Rosa Creek.
It was so successful that Blackman and the council, even before the earth moved, began talking of an expansion to the west of B Street and the freeway where there were a number of old business buildings. But Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was clear that it was not allowing expansion of existing programs.
Then came the earthquake - like a gift or a deathblow depending on your perspective, but certainly the “light switch,” as Blackman calls it.
Thus began a dozen years of civic, well, angst, for want of a better word. The first victim was Ray Baker, the longtime chief building inspector. Baker, Blackman says, “Found himself with just a couple of days to decide about occupancy. Was it safe to allow people back into some of the most seriously damaged structures? The department was just not equipped for this.
“Property owners, who hoped to get by with some caulking and painting, were of course, upset, when offered the choice of signs - one saying it may be unsafe, enter at your own risk, or an outright red tag, entry forbidden.”
Personal disasters mounted. Within a matter of months, Baker had a stroke and died soon after. George Minturn, the city manager, had a heart attack, returned to work briefly and then retired. The veteran fire chief, Gene Duignan, whose department was the lead in safety inspections, also became ill and died.
By the summer of 1970, Blackman had been named city manager.
He and the mayor at the time of the quake, lawyer Jack Ryersen, had already staged something of a coup, flying off to Washington immediately after the quake to plead for an extension of the Urban Renewal district.