The International Writers Magazine
: USA Urban Travel

Riding the Rails in L.A.
Pablo Delgado

A visitor to Los Angeles can save car rental money
by discovering the city on rail

The car shaped modern Los Angeles. The super highways that sprung up in the 1950s promised speed and efficiency. At the same time, trains, like aging starlets, lost their sheen. By the 1950s, the Red Line streetcars that had criss-crossed the city for decades were rolling toward their graves while the Holy Trinity of gasoline, tire, and automobile companies swooped in for the kill.

Happiness came in the shape of a car. No need to share your ride with strangers. You and the loved ones could reach your destination in the hermetically sealed comfort of your Detroit-built home-on-wheels.

But a dark underside cloaked the dream in a brown haze. Four lane scars widened to eight. Every boy dreamed about his first set of wheels. For adults, the car meant greater mobility. It also meant a ball-and-chain of car payments, insurance, and maintenance, but to be carless was to be a pariah -- an untouchable, doomed to ride public buses or a bicycle, or even worse, to walk. Anyone who could afford wheels, and many who couldn’t, went for the ride. In part, understandable. Los Angeles is not a Manhattan or a San Francisco, population centers defined by narrow parameters. The City of Angels spreads out like an ink stain on a blotter.

Freeways, L.A.’s arteries, developed tumors. No metaphor here. L.A.’s air had the flavor of an unfiltered cigarette. Take a jog, and you gasped for air. The three siblings, the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Mountains, locked hands, transforming Los Angeles into a Petri dish of toxins. Asthmatics left for Arizona.

To kill a plant, you have to reach its roots. Although neglected, the rail lines were not entirely uprooted, and in the 1990s, trains in this city of celluloid dreamers were resuscitated on a grand scale. Today they form the span of a web that reaches distant corners of the basin. From Redondo to Norwalk, from North Hollywood to Long Beach, the Metro Rail system’s seventy-one miles of tracks log in over 60 million boardings a year. The visitor to Los Angeles can save car rental money by discovering the city on rail.

The Red Line Metro train traverses through some of Los Angeles’s best-known sites. It starts at Union Station near the heart of old Los Angeles and bores through Hollywood up to the doorstep of the San Fernando Valley. Start your odyssey on the Red Line by exploring Union Station. The terminal’s unadorned facade belies the beauty indoors. The interior is an homage to the time of grand train travel in America. The ceiling of the main hall is inlaid with wood panels bearing colors and designs that resemble Native American rugs. Sink into one of the leather armchairs.

Resume your exploration of central L.A. by crossing Alameda Street to El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the oldest part of town. Olvera Street, which sits at the center of this historic district, is lined with Mexican restaurants and stalls selling kitch. Lunch on tortilla chips, guacamole, and flautas, then return to Union Station and take the Red or Green Line to Civic Center Station or Pershing Square Station. The area between these two stops pulsates with seeming paradox, the down-and-out taking an afternoon nap at Pershing Square, a hair-breath away from the Biltmore Hotel where the well-heeled brunch on lobster salad. A few blocks away, a restaurant advertising Mexican and Indian cuisine reels in the customers.

The Grand Central Market offers a good starting point for a walking tour of the area. Stalls brim with foods from around the world. The scent of fish, freshly cut meat, mangos, and coffee spice the air like a dash of cinnamon in tea. People in search of a seat in one of the meal areas weave their way among the other patrons. Meals are a bargain; the helpings are generous. Opposite the Grand Central Market on Hill Street, Angels Flight, a funicular service opened in the early twentieth century, crawls up the hillside to the condos on Bunker Hill. (At present, the service is closed and undergoing extensive repair.)
To an outsider, Los Angeles may appear to be a collection of suburbs initially stitched together by train lines, then later by freeways. However, downtown has been a part of the landscape since the nineteenth century. The area rubs shoulders with the oldest part of the city.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, City Hall stood above the other structures in this area. Built in 1926, the edifice was the first to break through the twelve-story height limit that had been imposed on buildings in Los Angeles. Grand structures of Hollywood’s early years – before The Business (i.e., The Movies) took its money to the Valley – stand on streets like Broadway and Spring. The United Artists Building, its facade a blend of Gothic and early twentieth century design, sits near other grand dames such as the Eastern Columbia building and the Los Angeles Theatre. Stretches of streets in this area are wind swept canyons populated by immigrants and the homeless.

If you make a round trip back to the Grand Central Market along Spring Street, you will come across a building adorned with a mural of outstretched hands and Aztec figures placed against a red and silver background. The influence of Mexican artists such as Rivera, Orozco, and Tamayo infuses this work that speaks of the plight of Latin American immigrants who have struggled to make it in el norte. Places of note nearby include Walt Disney Hall, the Music Center, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. If you head east, you come to Little Tokyo with its excellent array of Japanese eateries. The Japanese American National Museum includes a variety of items that detail the Japanese-American experience on the West Coast. The exhibit on the deportation of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during World War II is especially moving.

Downtown is old L.A., and it is new L.A. It is the city’s childhood, the soil from which it sprang. It holds the future because it continues to draw multitudes from Latin America and Asia, populations essential to keeping California’s economic engine churning. Exploring this part of town will take you the better part of a day, longer if you wish.

From downtown, the Red Line takes you to MacArthur Park. This corner of earth named after the commander of the American forces in the Pacific during World War II has seen better days, but if your love of Richard Harris and his music make this park a must-see, do your sightseeing in the morning or the afternoon. As the sun sets, the area takes on an edge where junkies and their dealers stroll among the vendors selling pirated CDs and other commodities. If you get off at the next stop along the Red Line, you will be at Wilshire and Vermont. For the next several miles along Wilshire heading west, you can see architecture which, like the strata layers on a mountain, give the observer an idea of Los Angeles’s evolution. The Art Deco Wiltern building stands on Wilshire and Western Boulevards about a mile up from the cubist-like St. Basil’s Catholic Church. But to get to know the twenty-mile stretch that is Wilshire, you have to motor it on car or bus. The Wilshire/Western subway line extends for two stops before ending abruptly.

Take the Metro to Hollywood and Vine. An ancient movie camera greets you near the entrance/exit to the station. Hollywood Boulevard between Arglye and La Brea Avenues has the flavor of a Hollywood movie set. Like Disneyland, it exerts an allure. Hollywood Boulevard has little to do with the film industry. There isn’t a major studio on the street, but the Boulevard caters to the belief that it is the center of the film world. Mann’s Chinese Theater and the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards ceremony is held annually, stand on this street teeming with families from the Midwest and from around the world hoping to catch a glimpse of a star. There is the Walk of Fame, the star-studded sidewalks honoring famous and not-so-famous stars of movie, stage, television, and recording fame. Step into one the souvenir shops that line the boulevard and buy a plastic Oscar to take to the folks back home. You can even have it engraved.

Other points of interest dot the area around Hollywood Boulevard. For example, Hollywood High, school to a long list of camera notables including Mickey Rooney and Ricky Nelson, is south of Hollywood Boulevard between Highland Avenue and Orange Drive. The Capitol Records Tower stands to the north of the boulevard on Vine. The building was meant to resemble a stack of LPs, yet despite this throwback to earlier audiophile days, it holds up well. Strolling along Hollywood Boulevard, you blend into the crowds of tourists snapping photos at Mann’s Chinese Theater, emerging out of a souvenir shop, or gawking at the lingerie displays at Frederick’s of Hollywood, but off the boulevard the pedestrian may feel like a fish in a tank, this despite inviting weather and wide sidewalks. In short, Angelenos don’t walk; to walk is to make you suspect. Just why is it you don’t have a car? Are you a health nut or lacking in vitamin D? If self-consciousness knocks on your doors of perception, shrug it off. You will be rewarded with a rich tan.

The Red Line offers the most tourist sights for your buck. However, others lines have their appeal. The Gold is the most recent of the Metro lines. It too emanates from Union Station. Being a surface line, it offers attractive views as it takes you to its final destination near Pasadena. You go past Chinatown. The lights of Dodger Stadium are just to the north. You cut through Elysian Park and travel over the Los Angeles River. If you reach the end of the line, the mighty San Gabriel Mountains will be staring down at you. The ride from Union Station to the end of the Gold Line takes about an hour, but it’s a relaxing, scenic hour.

Of the major rail lines, the Green has the least to offer the explorer on foot, but if you need to get to the airport quickly and on the cheap, you take the Green Line to the Aviation/I-105 stop where you jump onto a shuttle that will take you to your airline check-in. As you ride this line, take a look skyward, and you will see a line of airplanes following each other in succession as they glide into Los Angeles International Airport. They tail each other in two-minute successions.

The Blue Line is the longest of the commuter rail lines. It begins at the 7th Street/Metro Center stop. It starts underground, but soon surfaces. The Staples Center, home of the Lakers, is one of the first stations on the Blue as you head southbound. You go past warehouse districts before reaching the South Central area. The Watts Towers, a work that took Simon Rodia over three decades to construct and which has survived earthquakes and riots, stand near the 103rd Street stop. The spires of these towers can be seen from the Metro station. A museum-and-information center provides guided tours.
The Blue Line runs as far as 1st Street in Long Beach. Around the corner from the stop you can catch a bus that takes you to one of the boats that crosses the harbor to Santa Catalina Island. Connections with buses at other exits along the Blue Line will take you to sites such as Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.

Greed and short-sightedness have marred the history of public transportation in Los Angeles. The 1100 miles of track that criss-crossed Southern California in the early twentieth century was abandoned to make way for the automobile. Those who sold Southern Californians on the dream of utopia in the desert turned a blind eye to the impact that the car would have on the environment. For years, dangerously high levels of smog choked this basin. Thanks to improved car engines, air quality has gotten better. The Metro lines can also take some of the credit, and in these days of spiraling gas prices, riding the rails makes sense.
© Pablo Delgado - November 2005
Bangkok, Thailand

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