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AL MARTINEZ

A Shattered Tombstone in El Nino's Wake

April 21, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

It seemed odd viewing the destruction of winter in the ebullience of spring on a Sunday as bright as a baby's smile.

L.A.'s sky was a flawless blue, the temperature was in the 80s and green grass glistened on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Yet here and there remained evidence of the storms that had pounded us for months. There were berms along the beach and the remains of mudslides on the highways . . . and a battered little restaurant in Topanga called Topanga Rendez-Vous.

Seeing it half-crushed by a landslide on a day that burned with sunlight reminded me of a small, war-ravaged city I once saw in Korea after a battle had passed through.

Opposing armies had clashed in the middle of town but a day later it sat shrouded in almost peaceful silence. It seemed impossible that only hours earlier the very air had roared with the clang and boom of combat.

War and weather are like that, thundering in and whispering out as though their calamity had never existed.

What remains of the Rendez-Vous sits on the side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, cordoned off by a red ribbon that is more bleak than festive, marking the place where a dream died.

Rojiar Ahmadpour had put everything she owned into creating the place and now has 90 days to tear it down. "This is," she said, standing there looking at it, "the end."

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There have been greater losses from the storms of El Nino, whole houses that have slid down hillsides, lives that have been lost. That's the point. Small misfortunes are often missed in the larger scale of grand disasters, hardly glimpsed along roadsides that lead to views of mass destruction.

The Rendez-Vous was a very small restaurant with room enough inside for only a counter and a couple of tables. There were tables outside too, where one could sit under umbrellas surrounded by a strangely inappropriate white picket fence in an area of wood and funk.

The place served an eclectic combination of Greek and American food and some of the best coffee along the highway. At night it was lit up by a lot of twinkly white lights that outlined the small restaurant in the immensity of the darkness that surrounded it.

Ahmadpour, a 31-year-old Iranian, had rented the building for a year before buying it outright last January. It cost her $145,000. She still owes $80,000 on the mortgage.

The money she put into it, about $110,000 including the down payment and equipment, was part of a divorce settlement that had been intended for the future of her two sons, ages 9 and 13. She raises them alone.

"It was an investment," she said, moved close to tears by the sight of the restaurant, its back wall crushed in by a massive earthslide. "Now I have nothing."

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The restaurant is part of a series of shops called the Topanga Turnout, all of which had to be evacuated when the hill began to move, pushing the entire structure off its foundation.

A landmark for the past 40 years, it had survived a lot of hard times, including fire and flood, but the pounding of El Nino on the hill behind it was just too much.

"The earth was moving in slowly," Ahmadpour says in a heavy accent. "The sink was beginning to twist. . . ."

She hands me an official notice from the L.A. County Department of Public Works: "You are hereby ordered to remove the structure or provide plans to abate the unsafe buildings by July 12, 1998."

There's a forlorn emptiness to the abandoned Turnout. Tilted slightly lopsided by the relentless pressure of the slide, its Old West facade at an angle, it bears the vague appearance of a Disneyland ghost town, but in this case the destruction is real.

The Rendez-Vous is one of about 45 structures red-tagged in the county as a result of El Nino, the wild child of the South Pacific. You didn't read about most of them. Only big battles make headlines. The others are just shattered tombstones along the way.

Ahmadpour has no idea where she'd ever get the $300,000 it would cost to stabilize the slide and rebuild. She's looking for other work now to support her family.

"It's just one small place," she said, trying to put her loss in perspective. Just one small place that meant almost everything to her.

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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