Los Angeles Union Station evokes old films and hosts a resurgence of commercial life
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 2:08 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2013
LOS ANGELES » MANY movies have been shot at Los Angeles Union Station, but none can match the one you start filming in your head the moment you arrive from Alameda Street.
You fade in on the feet of a trendy young commuter, earbuds in place, rushing along the well-buffed tiled floor. The camera tilts up to reveal a homeless man dozing in one of the station's original leather-and-mahogany armchairs. You see a high, heavy chandelier, a grand arch, beams, stencil work.
It's a star in its own right, this building — a strange, graceful L.A. marriage of Spanish Colonial and Streamline Moderne styles — born in 1939, the last of the great American train stations. After a dismal slog through the late 20th century, Union Station is busier than ever, with about 10 times the traffic it had in its prosperous early years. Chances are it will soon be busier.
If you do your traveling by car and plane, you haven't seen the station in years, haven't harnessed your inner Hitchcock, haven't wondered where to hand off the mysterious suitcase, where the adulterers get down to business, where to stage the murder.
To the right, where the pay phones once were, you'll find the Traxx bar, ripe for eavesdropping.
Just across the arcade, you have the station's original restaurant, a Harvey House designed by Southwestern architect Mary Colter. It's been closed (except for film shoots and special events) for decades.
To the left, you can lean on a movable counter left over from either a "Night Court" TV shoot or a "Blade Runner" movie shoot, depending on whom you ask. And from there you see the station's enormous and idle ticket concourse, suitable for occupation by the Phantom of the Coast Starlight.
photographer Mark Boster and I prowled the station for several days recently to finish our yearlong series on iconic locations, "Postcards from the West." (You can see the first half-dozen at latimes.com/postcards.) I was standing near the old ticket concourse, trying to recall plot points of "Union Station" (1950, starring William Holden) and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" (1982, starring Steve Martin), when unscripted reality interrupted.
"My wife's had surgery!" an enraged Amtrak customer yelled at a security guard. "What is this, a museum or a … transportation center? You guys are pathetic! There's no help!"
The security guard stayed cool; the man stormed off; the human ebb and flow resumed.
Grandeur, grit, sepia light, flawed humanity — and that's before you even get to Wetzel's Pretzels. That food stand turns up, along with a sweet-smelling Subway, Starbucks, See's Candies, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and the convenience shop Famima, in the jumbled departure area just beyond the waiting room and before the long passage to the train platforms.
This is far more commercial life than the terminal saw from the 1960s to the '90s. Daily traffic is up to 60,000 to 75,000 commuters and travelers, depending on who's estimating. But as Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials acknowledge, the departure area could use better signage. (Amtrak and Metrolink do have motorized carts to carry travelers who have a disability, but station signs don't make that clear or explain how to summon one.)
If you walk down the long passage past the train platforms and under the tracks, you reach the station's east portal, built in the 1990s. Your reward for roaming waits above: a striking, 80-foot-wide multicultural mural of L.A. faces by Richard Wyatt, with an olive-skinned girl in a green blouse at center.
To me she's Our Lady of the Trains. Above her the sun shines through a geometrically patterned skylight dome that would fit right in atop a mosque in Qatar. Without leaving the station, you've just traveled from one end of the 20th century to the other.
Beyond the station itself, things get tricky for a traveler, and many are put off by its proximity to the 101 Freeway, the county jail and the many panhandlers near Olvera Street. But the resurgence of downtown Los Angeles has brought new options beyond the usual Olvera Street shuffle. Walk several blocks from the station — or take a one-stop subway ride — and you can browse vintage vinyl records and contemporary art in Chinatown, drink a $12 Asian Zombie under a string of lights in Little Tokyo or picnic on the grass of well-tended Grand Park just across the street from City Hall.
Since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bought Union Station in 2011, plans are afoot for more changes. Ken Pratt, Union Station's director of property management, said he has been courting prospective bar and restaurant tenants for the Harvey House. In as little as 18 months, Pratt said, "some inventive, eclectic, well-heeled restaurateur is going to come in here and do something marvelous."
Meanwhile, the MTA this year added a red-coated passenger assistance staff to answer questions. The MTA has also closed the station to nonpassengers between 1 and 4 a.m. to give janitors more room and to discourage homeless people from treating the station as base camp. In some not-so-historic second-story space above Amtrak's ticket sales window, the rail line has quietly opened the private Metropolitan Lounge for its business-class and sleeping-compartment passengers.
In public spaces there will be more movie nights and more live music, Pratt said, perhaps some artisan food services at the east portal in the next year, perhaps another restaurant in the now-idle space where Union Bagel once operated.
In the longer term, MTA executives are developing a master plan that would preserve the historic structure but add retail space, reroute the flow of bus traffic, allow for the arrival of a bullet-train connection to San Francisco by 2029 (if that costly, controversial project is completed) and improve transitions between the station and the neighborhood.
Executives say the MTA might even buy and knock down the privately owned Mozaic apartment buildings, an undistinguished complex next door that was built in 2006.
"We would be fine with that," said Adrian Scott Fine, Los Angeles Conservancy advocacy director. As for the MTA's larger ambitions? "The devil will be in the details."
But these changes could be years away, and plenty of ambitious Union Station plans have been floated and abandoned over the decades. Instead of holding your breath, savor the place as it is, grab one of those comfortable chairs, watch the passenger parade and polish your second act.
For instance, that "Night Court"/ "Blade Runner" counter in the vestibule? Definitely big enough to hold a corpse.
Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
|IF YOU GO ...
LOS ANGELES UNION STATION
There is plenty to do at and around Union Station. Here are some tips about what to do and what to pass up when visiting.
» 0 miles from Union Station: Union Station (800 N. Alameda St.; www.metro.net/about/union-station) is a hub for Amtrak, Metrolink regional commuter trains and the Metro subway and light-rail system. It's open 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. If you want to dive deep into the architecture and history of the station, join one of the walking tours offered by the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy (213-623-2489, www.laconservancy.org). Tours begin at 10 a.m. the third Saturday of every month, last 21/2 hours and cost $10 per adult.
» 0 miles: Do get a drink at Union Station's Traxx bar and restaurant (800 N. Alameda St.; 213-625-1999, www.traxx-restaurant.com). I've had mixed results at the restaurant (Yelp's reviewers give it 31/2 stars), but Traxx remains a great place to drink something cool while the world walks by.
» 0.1 mile: Do have a look at Olvera Street, which is part of the 44-acre El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument (www.elpueblo.lacity.org). The brick walkways, bougainvillea and fig trees are pleasant, and the Chinese American Museum, Avila Adobe and other small organizations offer interesting history. Vendors sell leather goods, wrestler masks, hats, pinatas, blankets, T-shirts, toy guitars and "Scarface" posters.
» 0.1 mile: For a snack, do try Olvera Street's Cielito Lindo (E-23, Olvera St.; 213-687-4391, www.cielitolindo.org), a taqueria that dates from 1934. For $3 you get two beef taquitos dipped in guacamole sauce. (Then browse Olverita's shop across the way at W-24.)
» 0.1 mile: Terminal Annex (900 N. Alameda St.), the station's hulking next-door neighbor, used to be the city's main post office. It has a great 1940 Mission Revival exterior, but don't get too excited about the inside. The lobby is open to the public (except Sundays), but its Works Progress Administration murals are smallish and forgettable, and there's little else to admire.
» 0.1 mile: If you need beer and barbecue, do head for Spring Street Smoke House (640 N. Spring St.; 213-626-0535, www.sssmokehouse.com). All the usual barbecue features are here: blues on the stereo, ribs, sandwiches, beans and a generous beer list. Main dishes generally $10.50-$25.95.
» 0.2 mile: Do belly up to the counter at Philippe the Original, shown at right. (1001 N. Alameda St.; 213-628-3781, www.philippes.com). Sawdust on the floor. Mobs at lunchtime. Knickknacks from old L.A. on the walls. You're supposed to order a French dip sandwich here -- because this might be its birthplace -- but I liked my French onion soup more.
» 0.3 mile: Do have a quick peek at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes (501 N. Main St.; 213-542-6200, www.lapca.org), a free, well-appointed, museum-esque space that tells local history from a Mexican-American point of view with multimedia displays. Open noon-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays. Closed Tuesdays.
» 0.3 mile: Do browse the goods at Cave Man Vintage Music (650 N. Spring St.; 213-625-9999, caveman-vintage.com). Vintage guitars, amps and vinyl, with a cool sign painted on the window. Has been in the neighborhood two years.
» 0.5 mile: Do think about a snack at Chinatown's Homegirl Cafe (130 W. Bruno St.; 323-526-1254, ext. 359; www.homegirlcafe.org), three blocks north of Union Station and across the street from the Gold Line's Chinatown station. Breakfasts and lunches are up to $12. Closed Sundays. It's a nonprofit effort that trains at-risk young women and men for restaurant work. Bright, pleasant dining room and an arresting batch of black-and-white portraits near the door that look a bit like mug shots. The cafe is part of Homeboy Industries.
» 0.5 mile: For thrills in a rice bowl, do try Chinatown's Chego, shown at right (Far East Plaza Mall, 727 N. Broadway, Suite 117; 323-380-8680, www.eatchego.com). From Roy Choi, the man behind L.A.'s Kogi Korean/Mexican taco trucks. Order at the counter (I liked the Sour Cream Hen House, with grilled chicken, sour cream, basil, sesame and broccoli), eat at a picnic table, expect rich flavors and no atmosphere. Main dishes up to $10. Closed Mondays.