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Neighbors Meet to Share Sunsets and Much More

High atop an ocean bluff, an informal ritual at day's end brings longtime residents together to visit, wonder and reflect.

January 17, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun slips toward the horizon behind a low band of clouds. Like ancient worshipers, the neighbors begin to gather at the top of the cliff, high above the rush-hour traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.

Emil Wroblicky is here just as he's been most days for the last 15 years. He comes for the same reason they all come: This 230-foot-tall, west-facing bluff in Pacific Palisades may be the best spot in Southern California to watch the day end.

"This is the best place in the world, really," Wroblicky says as the reddish dusk settles over his wife, Alice, and a dozen other members of their early evening coterie. "I love coming here in the morning after I read the paper. And we come out to see the sunset before dinner."

No one has tracked the informal ritual as to when it started or how. That hardly matters. The point is that something beautiful is visible almost every day from the tiny park at the end of Via de Las Olas, a street closed to car traffic.

Certain locations, especially seaside promontories, seem to touch some powerful yearning to catch evening's sky show. This sliver of coastal shelf is one of those vantage points. When the winds aren't too stiff, and when ruffled clouds create the chance for solar pyrotechnics, the crowd may number 50 or more.

Some bring blankets, snacks and beverages. In winter, most just throw on jackets and gaze out over the ocean. They've come to know each other. They threw a bluff-top party for Albert Androsky's 82nd birthday. He bought his cliff-top home in 1962, paying $42,000 for a place now worth $1.5 million, but he is lonely since his wife died a few years ago. He paints out the graffiti that occasionally appears on the white rail fence bordering the bluff.

A woman known only as "Mother Theresa"--she declines to give her full name--walks or rides her bike to the cliff from a few miles away. She greets everyone and dispenses neighborhood gossip, talking like the tough dame in an old movie. Her favorite expression is baby--as in, "There goes the sun, baby."

The loose camaraderie and the sheer magnificence of the view--the amber light on the water, the cars below like slow-moving toys on PCH, the silhouette of the Santa Monica Mountains to the north--fill a gap in the lives of the mostly older Palisades residents in ways that are sometimes difficult to fully grasp.

"Your whole being just opens up," says Lucille Rader, 78, who lives near the crest of the hill. She drives down and takes her evening walk at sunset. The conversations are sometimes the first she's had all day. People discuss personal hardships, loved ones, trips they took--or they just stand in wonder.

"Sometimes I go there and have a little cry now and then," says Rader, who lost her husband 12 years ago. From so high, it seems you can see the curvature of the Earth, the spinning machinery of the heavens. The sight of the sun sinking beyond the horizon dwarfs the problems of the moment.

"When I'm there, I know I'll see [Paul] again," Rader says. "There's no doubt. If we have this beautiful universe, there has to be someplace else."

The cliff is a local treasure. Few people take note of the cliff except when driving by it on Pacific Coast Highway or hearing news reports about a landslide.

One constant of the California rainy season is the chance of traffic snarls due to slides in the Palisades and Malibu.

Officials have noted more than 30 road-closing slides in Pacific Palisades alone since 1911, according to historian Randy Young. That number involves only three miles of coastline. At least eight homes have been destroyed and Pacific Coast Highway has been rerouted five times, Young says.

"Every time we have a big El Nino year, something moves," Young says. "Recently, [the bluffs] haven't slid, but it's purely because nature hasn't reared its ugly head."

Slide stories abound. One of the worst involves the precipitous bluff directly under Via de Las Olas. Tons of earth came down and blocked a 200-yard section of Pacific Coast Highway in 1958. A long cleanup job was followed by an inspection by Vaughn O. Sheff, highway superintendent for the California Department of Transportation.

Local lore--based partly on old newspaper accounts--has it that Sheff declared the road fit to reopen just before a new slide came down. Sheff desperately ran for the beach but stumbled and fell. His crumpled body was exhumed after seven hours of digging.

"The history of the Palisades," says Young, "is a history of land movement.... [But] one reason the Palisades is so charming is because of these slopes. You have to live with the good and bad. It's the yin and yang of the Palisades."

Those who choose these breathtaking ocean views willingly take a gamble, as Androsky did soon after the slide that killed Sheff. In four decades, Androsky says, he has seen erosion remove 1 1/2 feet of bluff on the seaward side of the street--an area with no homes. The rail fence is angled in places to accommodate small slide zones.

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