For this auto-less adventure, I decided to explore a train line that doesn't yet exist -- but will before too long if all goes according to plan. In January 2012, the Federal Transportation Administration approved the construction of a new light rail line connecting the Green Line with the Expo Line to the north. The total length of what's being referred to as the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor runs just under 8.5 miles (13.5 kilometers), and I decided to walk the route with my brother, Evan.
We began our journey by boarding the Gold Line, which we took to the Purple Line, which we in turn took to the Blue Line, the finally to the Green. We disembarked at what will be the southern terminus of the Crenshaw Line near the intersection of Imperial Highway and Aviation Boulevard, where the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westchester, the city of El Segundo, and the unincorporated community of Del Aire meet. West of Aviation there are still railroad tracks that were once used by The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, whose course the future metro line will take for its first five miles before turning north up Crenshaw Boulevard, the primary commercial corridor of South Los Angeles's black community.
Though the station is known as Aviation/LAX, it's located at the southeastern-most corner of the airport, more than two miles from the nearest terminals. There is, however, a free LAX shuttle that connects the station to the airport. To the southwest is a large Northrop Grunman building and the Los Angeles Airforce base -- reminders of El Segundo's importance as a hub of the defense industry. Across the street from them is The Wild Goose Theatre, which is apparently "L.A.'s only topless sports bar," established in 1966.
We began our trek heading north past a large lot to the east, which we learned later to be the Continental City Soil Recompaction Project -- whatever that is. A bit further north we stumbled upon The Proud Bird, an aviation-themed restaurant/banquet hall/event space/air museum with a large selection of aircraft on the grounds.
Continuing north, we paused to watch several jets land, passing directly overhead and projecting the unmistakable smell of jet exhaust that never fails to conjure up the anticipation of imminent travel, even if I'm just passing by on foot. Continuing north past a few blocks of almost abandoned-looking mid-century warehouses and industrial buildings (including the old Hughes Aircraft Company Building 101), we arrived at the next planned stop: Aviation/Century Station.
As with the previous stop, Aviation/Century station will be located on the edge of the airport, albeit closer to the terminals than Aviation/LAX -- just over a mile away. Though the shorter distance seems less tantalizing at the thought of hauling luggage its length, a reality underscored by the site of a man pushing a wheelchair overloaded with baggage that toppled over and spilled its cargo into the crosswalk.
Most businesses nearby this future station are oriented toward travelers arriving at LAX: gas stations, car and charter bus rentals, motels, and familiar international restaurant chains -- of little interest to most interurban tourists, but no doubt helpful for those arriving and departing from the airport.
Earlier this month Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA, the organization that operates LAX) announced that it's considering several options for shuttling passengers from the future Metro line. This stop certainly gets my vote, for what it's worth.
Heading north we passed a strange, ghost suburb: Manchester Square. Mostly vacant lots, it's nonetheless home to a few homes built in the 1940s and apartments built in the 1980s and '90s. Most of the former residences were acquired by LAWA and demolished to make way for future expansion of the airport. Even the name "Manchester Square" was appropriated by a neighborhood on the other side of Inglewood.
Today the lots are fenced off and crisscrossed with aboveground sprinkler systems, and I wondered if it was some sort of superfund site. However, there were a few signs of human life. A couple of men planted lettuce in front of an apartment. A formerly abandoned school was once again occupied. Additionally, there was a large murder of crows patrolling the fenced off lawns.
Heading north across Arbor Vitae we passed into Inglewood's La Cienega. Here the train tracks continue along the border between the 'Wood and Westchester, and then curve northeast following Florence Avenue. Across the street at Airport Gas, banners proclaimed the presence of Los Angeles's best hot dogs and chili dogs -- but we continued north.
Hindry Station (optional)
Construction of a station at Hindry and Florence Avenues depends on whether the necessary funds are obtained to build both it and a station at Leimert Plaza Park. At first glance I didn't see much of interest that would necessarily warrant a stop, but as with much of the city, the slightest bit of investigation revealed hidden gems.
Within a couple of blocks of the proposed station there's a surprising variety of eateries, offering chicken and waffles, Ethiopian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Persian, pizza, Taiwanese, Thai, and vegetarian cuisines. There's also the iconic Randy's Donuts -- a landmark that opened in 1953 as part of the now defunct Big Donut Drive-In chain. The huge donut sculpture on its roof has appeared in numerous films and TV series.
We lunched at Veg-It-Up, a restaurant housed within a nondescript cluster of buildings called Airport Plaza, located across the street from the large, bleakly beautiful Isis Electrical Substation. The service was friendly and the food was great. Veg-It-Up is also a "nutritional center" and the shelves were stocked full of canned mock meats -- appealing for vegetarians more concerned with other animals' health than their own.
After lunch we followed the tracks past a lot of light manufacturing and warehouses -- party supply rentals, cable manufacturers, storage buildings and the like -- very little of which interested either of us. At the 405 freeway, just a few blocks north, is the Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela Adobe, built in 1834 by Ignacio Machado.
East of the 405, near Cedar Avenue, the Santa Fe train tracks separate a short distance from the street and pass behind the large Prison Fellowship building. Near the intersection of Fir Avenue and Florence, by a 1920 Edison Substation, the tracks and Florence once again close the gap. A little further east is a grim collection of brutalist buildings: a fire station, a police station and, most impressively foreboding of all, the Southwest District Courthouse.
Florence/La Brea Station
Just a little further up the road, the Florence/La Brea Station will be located in Inglewood's downtown near Rogers Park and one of my favorite soul food places, Stuff I Eat. Several other soul food places are nearby, as well as Jamaican and Mexican joints. In the distance, near Market and Queen Streets, I could see the top of the 1,008-seat Fox Theater, designed by S. Charles Lee and Carl Moeller, built in 1949, and sadly sitting abandoned since 1984. Hopefully it will someday soon be restored to its former glory.
Heading northeast along the tracks, we passed the handsome and historic Saint John Chrysostom Church before entering the 65-acre Edward Vincent Junior Park. The park was long ago established as Centinela Park (and was home to a Tongva settlement) but later renamed after Inglewood's first black mayor. We passed through a small grove of young maple trees donated by the government of Canada and Cirque de Soleil for reasons I haven't been able to explain.
Emerging at the southeast corner of the park, across the street is the large Inglewood Park Cemetery, built in 1905. It's the final resting place of many well-known athletes and entertainers.
The Santa Fe Line intersects West Boulevard between Florence Avenue and Redondo Boulevard on the border of Inglewood and the Hyde Park neighborhood. Nearby is the Youth Justice Center, aka Chuco's, a community space named after the late Jesse Chuco Becerra, a former volunteer who was killed whilst trying to resolve a conflict. The center's purpose is to serve young people who are on parole or house arrest by providing a safe and stable environment.
The pre-existing train line intersects Crenshaw Boulevard a little further north between 71st and 67th streets. At this point the Crenshaw train will turn and follow the route of the old E Line (and later 5 Line) of the Los Angeles Railway, which between 1931 and 1963 connected Hawthorne and Eagle Rock with 22 miles of track.
Heading north up Crenshaw we passed Stone's Grocery & Market, where loud reggae music filled the air. Out front there were reggae CDs and DVDs were displayed for sale where a few guys were hanging out. The market also houses a Jamaican take-out kitchen.
We headed north for several blocks before arriving at Slauson, where the air was thick with various aromas. The fumes from BBQ, a burger and burrito restaurant, a donut shop, a fish market, and a couple of fried chicken joints created an intoxicating smell. A bit further west, but not detectably within nose-shot, is Mr. Wisdom Organic Health Foods and Hare Krishna Restaurant.
Just north is View Park Prep School. On the school gate hung a banner promoting the Crenshaw Subway Coalition -- a nonprofit organization hoping to be involved in the planning process of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor.
At the southwest corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 52nd Street are the ruins of Crenshaw Motors Ford. From 1946 until its demolition, there stood a gorgeous, celebrated, neon-lit, art deco stunner. Its doors forever shut in 2007 when UK-based Tesco bought and destroyed the last car dealership along Los Angeles's black main street with the promise to open a Fresh & Easy that never materialized.
About halfway up the next block we passed a long mural depicting millennia of black history. It begins with the words, "In the beginning" and almost reads like a scroll before ending with the plea "respect art -- no street bombs," an admonition which has been followed. It seems most people merely refer to it as "The Wall," although I've also heard of it being referred to as "The Great Wall of Crenshaw."
Just north of 52nd we briefly lingered outside of Dulan's on Crenshaw. As we weighed whether or not to stop and eat again -- and rest our feet -- we looked through the windows at the menu and saw two women beckoning us inside. My brother ordered food and I struck up a conversation with Brittany, a Cal State Northridge student/ San Francisco native with strong views about the need for more trains. She concluded by expressing the sentiment that the community especially needs one at Leimert Plaza Park.
Leimert Park Station (optional)
Prior to our exploration, I was at best ambivalent about the need for a Leimert Park station. In November of this year, the New York Times ran a piece titled "Rail Plan Stirs Distrust Among Black Angelenos" which stated "The Leimert Park neighborhood, the heart of black culture here, may be left without a stop on the rail line, a victim of limited money."
Anyone who bothered to look at the map could see that the New York Times' assertion was false. Leimert Park already has one stop -- Expo/Crenshaw -- and is guaranteed a second at Crenshaw and MLK just half a mile north of the optional Leimert Park station.
Upon arriving at Leimert Plaza Park and the Leimert Park Village area of the neighborhood I immediately changed my mind. The area seems quite distinct from the rest of the neighborhood and is a real gem of the entire region. There used to be a station there one on the E (and later 5) lines before it headed northeast, and it almost feels like there still is -- with people casually hanging out and the presence of a small, charming park.
The Leimert Plaza Park reminded my brother of the small town square of Knoxville, Iowa, where we both lived for a few years. Only Knoxville never smelled like incense, wasn't known for its jazz, blues and hip hop clubs, and didn't have even one shop selling African goods. The "town square" is dominated by the beautiful Vision Theatre, which opened in 1931 as the 1,123-seat Art Deco "Leimert Theatre." It's currently undergoing renovation, and looks a far sight better than the Fox in Inglewood. Surrounding the village there are more treasures waiting to be discovered -- including the street on which neighborhood resident John Singleton filmed most of Baby Boy.
The penultimate stop is scheduled to be built near Crenshaw and MLK, right by the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The first stores in the mall originally opened as the Broadway-Crenshaw Center in 1947. In the past, this area was served by a line of the Los Angeles Motor Coach Company bus system.
From an economic standpoint, it's obvious to locate a station at a busy intersection and near a mall -- and one, it should be pointed out, is not without its cultural connections to the community. The third floor of Macy's is home to The Museum of African-American Art, and next year the 20-year-old Pan African Film Festival will returnto the cinema, called Rave Motion Pictures (formerly the Magic Johnson Theatre), after a couple of years in Culver City.
Heading north up Crenshaw's frontage road, we passed several sidewalk vendors as we came near several highly-regarded restaurants in the Crenshaw Square Shopping Center. Around Coliseum Street the neighborhood's population seemed to grow more diverse and I later read that it is home to a sizable population of Japanese-Americans that was established there some time ago.
Further north there are more and more chains and the parking lots expand in size to the point of dominating the nearby landscape around Rodeo Road. As we arrived at the Expo Line, we passed Earlez Grille, which will be demolished to make way for the Crenshaw Line. Despite this decision, the brothers/owners Cary and Duane Earle are reportedly supporters of the coming train line as well as outspoken advocates of the optional Leimert Park station. It's heartening to know that some people can look past obstacles to a better future.
The sun set as we boarded the train. I pointed to the sidewalk area where I'd spied the wild budgie back when I explored along the Expo Line.
Photos and map by Eric Brightwell