This week was to have been the wettest in Los Angeles since the torrential rains of 2005. Echo Park resident Isa Meksin remembers them well. In fact, she is reminded of that stormy season every time she walks up her front steps past the approximately 100-foot-long, concrete retaining wall built to replace the rock and mortar wall that partly collapsed in February 2005 – one day after her 77th birthday. The wall’s failure in front of Meksin’s Spanish-colonial style apartment complex triggered a more than two-year-long struggle that will give many Los Angeles hillside residents even more reason to worry when the rain begins to pour. Some of Meksin’s tenants moved out, loans had to be secured and construction was briefly halted after workers spotted what looked like a boa constrictor on the Laguna Avenue property. At one point, Meksin screamed after building inspectors temporarily red tagged the place she had called home since 1961. “They would have had to literally haul me out of here,” Meksin said of her apartment overlooking Echo Park Lake. “Where would I go? What would I take? What would I do? It was too awful to contemplate.”
The retired school teacher and neighborhood activist moved into what she calls Laguna Castle during the Cuban Missile Crises, settling into a $60-a-month apartment that she still occupies. About a decade later, the New York native ended up buying the two buildings perched on a wide hillside lot east of Echo Park Lake for $45,000. One of the property’s more imposing features – along with towering white walls, arches and narrow stairways – was a wall of rock that loomed over the sidewalk. It was an approximately 50-foot section of that unreinforced wall of stone and mortar that gave way on the south end of the property, crashing down on an empty sidewalk and an unoccupied car. Later, engineers determined that northern portion section of the wall that remained standing was unsafe and would also have to come down.
Meksin’s insurance paid for the car damaged by the falling wall – and nothing else. The bills were quickly stacking up, including an $800 letter from a soils analyst and $17,000 to haul away 17 tons of rock, wet dirt and debris. Meanwhile, two of her tenants moved out from the second building on the property that sat close to what remained of the damaged wall. Meksin and other tenants remained in the other building after convincing city inspectors that it was not in danger (and signing a waiver protecting the city from liability). Meksin and her apartment manager navigated through the federal bureaucracy to get a low-interest loan that totaled $284,000 to cover the construction, engineering reports, landscaping and other related costs. Getting the loan, however, proved relatively painless compared to construction. The work took more than a year and involved moving telephone poles and other complicated maneuvers. There were a few but annoying set backs and delays, including the day workers poured in the wrong size gravel and another instance when a giant snake identified as a boa constrictor was spotted. Work was halted and Animal Control officers were called to the scene. A hole cut into the floor of Cox’s apartment to take a look closer look but the snake was never found.
Work resumed and in July 2007, nearly 30 months after the wall collapsed, city inspectors signed off on the new structure. The new 15-foot-high concrete wall (pictured at bottom) lacks the character of the old structure but it does not look like it’s going anywhere. Meksin said the prospect of heavy rains this week didn’t bother her, not with a $284,000 security blanket draped across the front of her hill.
“The house may go but my wall won’t.”
Top photos by Martin Cox; bottom photo by The Eastsider