"I get up at 5 in the morning and I used to look out on a beautiful hill," said Heinz Bonkat, a transplanted Clevelander who has lived in Torrance for eight years.
But for the last few months, he has been looking out on plastic--slowly deteriorating, shining-in-the-sun, flapping-in-the-wind plastic.
"I wish they would do something," he said.
A neighbor a few doors away on Newton Street was a bit more blunt. "It's ugly," said 17-year-old Sym Robinett.
The plastic that dominates the view from the 4500 and 4600 blocks of Newton--and is a prominent feature of the landscape for miles around--was put in by the city, which owns the property. A landslide there more than a year ago resulted in the destruction of two homes.
Right after the slide in April, 1986, a heavy buttress of steel beams and boards was installed to shore up the bottom of the slide. To prepare for the rainy winter, the slide area was graded and the city built a wall to firm up the land above the slide. Then the plastic was installed to keep rainwater from destabilizing the ground.
The plastic, however, was the last phase of the $625,000 winterization process, and was installed after the heaviest rainfall was over.
"All the homeowners said, 'Great, you finished the winterization and winter is over by the time you put the plastic on,' " said Philip Tilden, city programs administrator who is coordinating the slide repairs.
He said the worst rains usually occur in February and March, and the slope would have been protected had they come. But, he added, "there just was no rain."
Tilden said the plastic, which measures about 200 feet square, began deteriorating after 90 days and by then the rainy season had ended and there was no need to repair it. As for removing it, that will be part of a permanent stabilization effort beginning in August.
Several residents praised city efforts to repair the slide damage and said they feel that their homes are secure. But there was some derision of the tattered plastic, and a little impatience about how long the work is taking.
"The plastic was a waste," said Richard Cunningham, another Newton resident. "They put it up, and look what happened. The wind tore it up."
But Mayor Katy Geissert said the city put it in as a precaution based on the best technical advice available. "It's not the most beautiful thing I've seen," she said, "but houses being threatened weren't beautiful, either. It's temporary."
Nothing Bad to Say
Up above Newton on Vista Largo, Guy Albright had nothing bad to say about the city or the slide, even though his striking home--with a turret suggesting a medieval castle--is next door to where former Mayor Albert Isen lived until the slide took his home.
"I don't feel in any danger, and the city is terrific," Albright said, adding that he demonstrated his confidence by painting the house and putting on a new roof.
Across the street, Karen Goldstein, who bought her home six months ago, said her family probably got a break in the price--she won't say what it was--because of the slide.
Work Starts Aug. 1
"An engineer who is a friend told us there is no reason not to think the house is safe," she said.
However, Goldstein said, the work should be further along. "A month ago, they said it would be June 1," she said.
The latest word from the city is that bids will be taken in July and work will start Aug. 1 on the permanent stabilization program, which includes replacing unstable soil with good dirt, as well as installation of a drainage system.
"The plastic will be removed at the time work is started," said Ralph C. Grippo, Torrance building and safety director, adding that cost estimates range from $500,000 to $1 million. In addition to the $625,000 winterization program, the city had to pay $425,000 for Isen's home and has set aside $450,000 for the other house, which is the subject of a lawsuit.
Tilden recited a list of complications that have prolonged the work. First, geologists studied what happened, then a civil engineer decided what should be done so it wouldn't happen again.
Frank Smith, the owner of the other house affected by the slide, "fought several months" to save his home, Tilden said, but the city eventually condemned and removed it last October. "It was determined that while the house might be saved, doing work beneath it on the steep hill would imperil the workers, and it was not worth it," Tilden said.
Last December, Smith filed a $10-million lawsuit against the city, arguing that the slide had stabilized and the city could have done the buttress work without destroying his home. The case is pending in Los Angeles Superior Court, said Torrance Assistant City Atty. William G. Quale.
"We are moving as fast as we can to preserve the stability of the hill," said City Councilman Dan Walker. "Hopefully one will look up in a year or two and see nothing but a beautiful green hillside, never realizing that a tragedy took place."