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A Los Angeles Primer: The Blue Line

"Please stand clear. The doors are closing."

"That's right! The doors are closing -- closing on your chance for salvation! And if you refuse to accept your lord and savior, you'll find yourself behind those closed doors! Behind them for all eternity!"

The preacher went on, instinctively weaving each of the loudspeaker's announcements into the morning's forceful sermon. He wore a brown three-piece suit, not likely bespoke; his every gesticulation, and he made many, sent flying the extra fabric at his wrists and ankles. But what he lacked in tailoring, he made up in his distinctively both wild- and dead-eyed passion. The microphone he held to his mouth looked connected to nothing, yet his voice boomed as if amplified. Boomed through the whole car of the train, that is, undeterred even as my fellow passengers actively ignored it. I don't see or hear this sort of thing every time I ride the Blue Line, not that it surprised me when I did.

Writing "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" in the early seventies, Reyner Banham speculated about what form of transit would one day replace the freeways. "A rapid-rail system is the oldest candidate for the succession," he wrote, "but nothing has happened so far. The core of the problem, I suspect, is that when the socially necessary branch has been built, to Watts, and the profitable branch, along Wilshire, little more will be done and most Angelenos will be an average of fifteen miles from a rapid-transit station." This exemplifies Banham's still-fascinating half-prescience: 22 years after the book appeared, the first stations of that "commercially necessary" Wilshire branch -- the Purple Line I rode to the downtown coffee shop where I write these words -- would open. Just a few years before that, Los Angeles' long-awaited modern "rapid-rail" system began its operation with the "socially necessary" one, the Blue Line. Despite recent years' glimmers of hope for extension, some riders have given up hope of ever riding a Purple Line train all the way under Wilshire Boulevard, but even upon its opening the Blue Line ran from downtown not just to Watts but well past it, all the way to Long Beach.

Banham's language of social necessity may make the train sound like a food-stamp program, but when it entered service in 1990, it did so to great fanfare. The triumphal video "A Promise Delivered" (a production of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) frames the Blue Line as the harbinger of a brave new Los Angeles, and footage from its grand opening suggests a citywide paroxysm of ecstasy. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles contributed to the push with "Operation Blue Line," once available on VHS from major grocery the city over. In it, the normally New York-based quartet of reptilian heroes shows up to defeat a black-caped ne'er-do-well named Gridlock who, in service of the eponymous traffic condition, schemes to "make all public information about the Blue Line disappear." The production makes for an embarrassing watch on every level, not least because, despite the Turtles' victory in the battle, Gridlock hasn't yet lost the war. Look at the the numbers, especially the weekday boarding average of 90,000, and the Blue Line comes out a success. Yet every time I ride it, I can't help but feel that something in the execution has gone obscurely wrong.

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In an article about the train he calls the "Ghetto Blue" (not, admittedly, a label I've heard before), the LA Weekly's Ben Quiñones describes its ridership: "The MTA's demographic profiling shows that the median household income on the Blue Line is $17,000. Most are also brown or black: African-Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, Mexicans, Guatemalan Mayas, and Salvatruchas. [ ... ] Wheelchair users with disabilities rely on strangers for assistance; homeless people lie across seats displaying untreated scabs and cuts on their legs; alcoholics with the shakes brown-bag it in public; and mentally ill passengers play out delusions" -- an almost cartoonish contrast with the healthy, middle class-looking, predominantly white crowds praising the gleaming new train in A Promise Delivered, and with the tour group Huell Howser takes on the Blue Line to Watts Towers in a 1993 episode of Visiting. "Well, now, the Blue Line's been operatin' for a year or two in L.A.," he exclaims, almost in exasperation, as he learns how few of his pale, frail charges have ridden the train before. "Where've y'all been?"

"In the San Fernando Valley," replies one matron, not unreasonably, given that the vast, all-connecting rail network gloriously envisioned in those LACTC promotional materials remains, for most Angelenos, a dream deferred. Still, the system has grown, if more slowly than expected, though I have yet to see a much widened variety of faces on the Blue Line as a result; while I certainly don't wish for as white-bread a demographic as the one good old Huell took to the Towers, the regulars Quiñones saw -- the same ones, more or less, that I do -- constitute simply a different kind of non-diversity, which, in a city seen as the world in microcosm, does make you wonder. Even today, I meet people who regularly go between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach who've never considered doing so on the Blue Line. Blame racism if you must, or classism, or anti-transit bias, but I would submit you need consider nothing beyond the fact that it needs more than an hour to travel those 22 miles. Los Angeles never internalized the notion that a train can, indeed should, move faster than a car -- that, in speed, it offers its main advantage over the automobile -- although given the Blue Line's gruesome record of level-crossing deaths, we may not want it to speed up.

The train feels to me, unlikely a comparison as it may seem, a bit like those long intercity lines you'd take in Asia. That thought makes me feel even more bewildered by its slowness, but I don't ride the Blue Line because I commute; I ride it because I don't commute, boarding instead to experience what Quiñones called "more than just a train," "a culture, a near-sovereign civilization-within-the-city," and one that runs on the old Pacific Electric route Henry Huntington himself called "the finest road in the world." When it reaches its highest elevation, you gaze upon a classic landscape of old industry -- shipping containers lined up by the hundred, ready-for-scrap retired shopping carts clustered by the thousand, rotting pallets stacked to the height of towers -- and the seemingly endless, low-lying landscape of small, fenced-in homes that has long provided the movies visual shorthand for South Los Angeles. And not a ride goes by without an entrepreneurial type boarding to sell conveniences: candy, water, incense, backscratchers, miniature sweet potato pies, Newports. On a good day, you'll even get some religious instruction.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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Even today, I meet people who regularly go between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach who've never considered doing so on the Blue Line. Blame racism if you must, or classism, or anti-transit bias, but I would submit you need consider nothing beyond the fact that it needs more than an hour to travel those 22 miles.

There's also the sexual harassment issue, which -- in my admittedly anecdotal and second-hand information -- tends to be marginally more prevalent on the Blue Line than on other lines in the system.

Which isn't to say the issue doesn't apply to other line, mind: I have heard Red Line harassment stories that curled my hair. But that is a very specific complaint I have heard from multiple friends about why they seek alternatives to the Blue Line: the feeling that once you step the train on you're fair game for the creep of the day.