On my way to pick up my daughter from school yesterday, I stopped at the Northridge Gelson's to get her a bottle of the French pink lemonade she likes.
I had not been there since the weekend, when my sister was visiting. My sister loves the tarragon egg salad they make at Gelson's. They don't make anything that tastes quite the same at the upscale Nugget supermarket chain in her neighborhood, and we've never been able to successfully mimic it. Anyway -- I try to remember to buy her some whenever she's down to see me.
Gelson's Northridge is perfectly situated near my daughter's high school. Shopping there isn't cheap -- but it's pleasant: the aisles are not crowded with extra displays that make it difficult to navigate a shopping cart. The produce and meats are all gorgeous. You never have to wait very long in line; if more than two people are in the queue, they open up another checkstand.
I hate to admit it, but the Ladies room at Gelson's was usually cleaner than my bathroom at home -- and always displayed a gorgeous fresh arrangement from their spectacular in-house florist.
I appreciated the pretty eating areas, with fireplaces that were lit whenever the weather was cold. I am a big fan of the in-house Wolfgang Puck outlet, which makes some of the tastiest salads around. Last year, I got in the habit of grabbing one of those salads for lunch and enjoying the free wi-fi until it was time to get Megan from school.
I won't be able to do that any longer. As I entered the store yesterday, I was greeted by the following sign:
I couldn't even pick up a nice Chinese chicken salad. The Wolfgang Puck's was already closed.
I was 40 years old. I'd spent a dozen years trying to earn a living in the entertainment industry -- which means that for much of that time, I had been underpaid and under-employed. Four years earlier, I'd taken my first "straight" full-time job -- at a trade association with an office in downtown Los Angeles. This was the first and only time in my adult life that owning a home seemed even remotely possible, as until then, housing prices in California only ever went one way: UP. Our daughter was five months old.
My husband takes exception with me when I say I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the northwest Valley. I had been living in Studio City/Sherman Oaks since 1981, and I thought it was the best neighborhood in all of Los Angeles. I still feel that way. True, you're still stuck in the Valley, which doesn't get those nice ocean breezes of the Westside -- but it's not as densely populated, the traffic is way better, and it's freeway and canyon close to almost all the other nice spots in the city. There are several walkable parks and tempting stores and restaurants along Ventura Boulevard. I liked living down there.
The only problem is that the amount of house we could afford wasn't going to get us much in that neighborhood: probably just a condo. And even though I was certain that a condo purchase at the bottom of the market could be parlayed into a house when prices inevitably went back up, my husband was adamant: He did not want his daughter growing up in an apartment. He wanted her to have a back yard to play in. And that meant going north.
I grew up in the north end of the Valley: first in Mission Hills, then North Hills (which at the time, was called Sepulveda) and finally, in Chatsworth. So I was familiar with the area, which I knew to be a safe, upper-middle class part of town with good public schools within LAUSD. But moving back was a shock: I'd forgotten how the long, suburban blocks of housing just went on and on, leaving few interesting places to walk.
And I was shocked at what passed for a restaurant scene up here: mostly chains (and few of the ones I really liked -- THERE WASN'T EVEN A STARBUCKS UP HERE IN 1996). I could not understand why you couldn't get a table as early as 6:00 -- when I was commuting downtown, I rarely made it back to our house until seven. (Down in Studio City, I was used to dining early to avoid the rush at 8:00).
The same factors that made our house affordable also affected the area in the form of empty shopping centers and sparse amenities. Northridge Fashion Center had been decimated by the earthquake. Other shopping centers in the area were like little ghost towns, including the one closest to our home. It was a 10-minute drive to get to the nearest grocery store.
But shortly after we moved in, the economy started to pick up. Developers rebuilt the properties that had been damaged in the quake. Northridge Fashion Center re-opened with great fanfare, and and a radically re-designed Broadway store (remember the Broadway?), as well as its other anchors: Bullock's, May Co., Robinson's, JC Penney and Sears. Unfortunately, the Broadway was soon swallowed up by Federated Department stores and was shortly closed again -- but the mall used that opportunity to add a new "North" open-air section with a cineplex.
We eventually got a Starbucks (and then another, and another and another...), as well as a couple of big, new Ralphs, a supermarket near my house, some restaurants (chains, but nicer ones) and a Whole Foods. But the addition that finally made me feel as much at home in Northridge as I had in Sherman Oaks was the opening of our Gelson's.
I've lived in the San Fernando Valley for most of my 55 years, and there are times when I look down a street and see the ghost of what was there before: the Food Giant store on Devonshire and Sepulveda. Earl's Toys. El Gato Restaurant, where our high school Spanish classes would have an end-of-semester party amid the strolling mariachis. The Farrell's restaurant where a waiter friend indulged our lies about it being our birthday so we could get free sundaes. The Broadway, Bullock's, Robinson's and May Co. department stores, which were each so much nicer than the Macy's that replaced them all. Change happens. It's part of life.
But this last recession has made this neighborhood look a lot like it did when I first got here. That northern part of Northridge mall has become a dead zone: We've lost the On the Border Mexican restaurant, Borders Books and Cost Plus. And the same shopping center that was anchored by Gelson's has two other big vacant spaces left by Linens and Things and a Hallmark store.
Ironically, Gelson's is closing just as we were seeing some new signs of life. The owners of the Granada Village shopping center took advantage of the downturn (and many empty storefronts) by embarking on a major renovation, positioning themselves perfectly for the next big wave. We got a new Sprouts supermarket there. And on Wednesday, the little shopping center by my house welcomed a new Fresh and Easy (which means I won't have to schlep 10 minutes any longer to grab a last-minute carton of milk).
Things change, and usually improve.
When I told my husband that our Gelson's was closing, he was kind of dismissive.
"I'm not surprised," he said. "I never saw anyone in there, because it was too expensive."
My sister understood.
I'll still get her the egg salad. I'll just have to drive to Sherman Oaks.