A Los Angeles Primer: Union Station

Who could cross the country by rail today without dreaming of a distant, more glamorous, wholly lost, and perhaps even partially imaginary era of American train travel? Who, indeed, could set foot in Los Angeles' Union Station without doing the same? The building itself, built in 1939, is a palm-surrounded hybrid of Dutch Colonial Revival, Spanish Mission Colonial Revival, and Streamline Moderne, designed by John Parkinson, the English expat architect responsible also for City Hall, Bullock's Wilshire, and the Memorial Coliseum. As the last of the country's major railway terminals, it first made for a monument, and soon a memorial, to the heyday of passenger trains in the United States. Well-kept up even now, and seemingly always undergoing some type of restorative maintenance, Union Station at moments evokes the road not taken, one leading to, say, New York in an afternoon, rather than in 63 hours. (Not counting the inevitable delays.)

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Just as the once-exhilarating promise of a long-distance train journey has become an occasion for preemptive despondency, so does Union Station feel at once grand and forlorn. Its original bold aesthetic vision, right down to its original weighty furniture, has survived, pulling through even its decades of near-desertion in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. This has made it a showpiece of high historical value, and a favorite touring spot for not just rail fans but enthusiasts of Los Angeles' past. These qualities impress me, even as they fill me with impatience. How often, I regularly find myself asking, must a city so young ask us to appreciate a place because it shows off a flash of genius from a long-dead architect — who passed, in fact, almost five years before the building itself opened — or because colorful things happened there before, or may have?

Some of the discomfort felt in Union Station has to do with the confused energy of a space that doesn't know who to play to. Its architecture, its respected place in history, and its well-regarded bar and restaurant say one thing; its actual function, since the demotion of rail to the second class at best, says another. Even given 21st-century security hassles, many I know unhesitatingly shell out the extra fare for a plane rather than a train, no matter how near their destination. Watching the Amtrak crowds passing through will bitterly challenge the romantic, half-mythic fantasies of golden-age rail travel conjured up by the built environment itself; the procession of everyday slouches, sweatshirts, and bags literally bursting at the seams, then convinces you to see a people somehow condemned to the land. Among them drifts the occasional shambling, less fortunate figure, without any conceivable points of arrival or departure at all.

For all its timeless appeal and admirably vigorous upkeep, Union Station nevertheless suffers a faint but persistent underlying sense of dereliction, or at least uncleanliness. (Sometimes I visit and feel it has finally gone, but then I enter the restrooms too far between janitorial shifts.) One recently attempted solution to the most visible affliction of this or any public space — that of lingering indigent — involved removing most of the seating and cordoning off the rest for ticketed passengers, a measure desperate enough to signal a potentially unsolvable problem. But do airports do much better? Located so far from their cities' centers and subject to such complicated entry procedures, most never have to face this sort of challenge in the first place. One trip through LAX, though, makes you realize the great advantage of Union Station and its predecessors across America, no matter how neglected: when you walk out of them, you walk straight into downtown.

Union Station didn't arrive at its own location, in downtown Los Angeles' northeastern corner, without struggle. It stands, in fact, upon the flattened site of the city's first Chinatown, whose sacrifice came as a result of a 1926 vote between the construction of a terminal or an elevated rail network. In the decades following the Second World War, however, this position must have seemed less an asset than yet one more liability, and Union Station's fortunes have since revived in a reflection of downtown's. As a hub, now, for not only county commuter trains but the subway and light-rail lines leading to Pasadena, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, and well east beyond, modern Union Station does serve a wider — and, one hopes, ever-widening — slice of the population. You can also infer it from the slow but steady increase in its commercial amenities, from Subway sandwiches and Wetzel's Pretzels, to See's Candies and Ben & Jerry's to a Famima! Convenience store and Starbucks Coffee. (Just don't expect anywhere to sit down with your Pike Place Roast.)

It even serves those who prefer to fly. Half the trips I take, to other cities, countries, or continents, begin at Union Station, from which departs my bus service of choice to LAX, which, though one of the busiest and most densely connected international airports in the world, never quite exudes the spirit of travel in the way Union Station continues to. (Certainly the movies haven't held themselves above casting it as Los Angeles' airport.) When I return, of course, I pass through the place again to catch the Purple Line home. At that point, despite having already gazed down upon the blunt, seemingly endless, unglamorous stretches of Los Angeles from atop the freeway out of bus windows, I understand how the hopeful inland arrivals of the 1940s would have felt upon disembarking their train and strolling into Union Station's courtyard, a symbol of the much-sold notion of Los Angeles as paradise. That courtyard still has its Edenic moments, but if you want to savor the feeling, I recommend the one at the Metropolitan Water District next door. It's got more seating.

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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