75 Years Later, Time and Again at Union Station

Union Station Under Construction
Union Station Under Construction | Photo by Dick Whittington Studio | Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

Grand Park downtown -- which the Los Angeles Times calls "arguably the most beautiful new public space created in Los Angeles -- held its second annual book party on Saturday. I was supposed to attend (but couldn't) to read a version of an essay I wrote in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the opening of Union Station -- inarguably one of the most beautiful sort-of-public spaces in Los Angeles.

Along with other writers and historians, I'd been asked by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (called Metro) to consider how Union Station after 75 years fits into the texture of our lives in Los Angeles.

Metro bought the station in 2011 from Catellus Development (a descendant of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads) for $75 million. The station is beginning a multi-year program of expansion, renovation, and conservation.

I can only hope that the project will retain Union Station's capacity for daydreaming.

Union Station 1939
Union Station 1939 | Photo by Dick Whittington Studio | Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

I think Union Station -- like other architectural survivals in Los Angeles -- is a place where "slips in time" are happening all the time. "If it's possible for a place to have memories of its own," I wrote, "then Union Station in Los Angeles is such a place. It's also the hub of Metro's regional transit system and a railroad terminal -- people hustle through Union Station for those reasons -- but the patient sojourner who sits in one of the throne-like chairs in the waiting room or steps into the adjacent patios inevitably slips out of the everyday and into the station's own time.

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For the city builders of Los Angeles, a romantic Spanish and Mexican past was supposed to blend with an easeful present to achieve a triumphant, machine-age tomorrow, just as the architecture of Union Station said it would. Left out of the design were other figures -- mostly people of color -- who resisted fitting into that consoling synthesis of past and future. When Union Station opened in May 1939, everything about the station reflected the city's longing to be both modern and nostalgic. The view through Union Station today is far more complicated.

Union Station is a multi-modal transportation center and a symbol of Depression era optimism. It's a glamorous building and a survival of past assumptions about Los Angeles that still trouble today's city. Union Station is a character actor in the movies and a working time machine.

The option to be in more than one time while being in one place is entertaining. But time slips at Union Station serve a purpose beyond amusement. Angeleños suffer from a willful forgetfulness about how their place was made and what it's made of. Union Station resists the city's common amnesia.

It remembers for them.

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