Reflections on Union Station: an essay by David Kipen


On the occasion of Union Station’s 75th anniversary, Metro created a special commemorative publication, Union Station: 75 Years in the Heart of LA, featuring eight written and five photographic essays that celebrate the station by authors John C. Arroyo, William D. Estrada, Stephen Fried, Rafer Guzman, David Kipen, Marisela Norte, D. J. Waldie, and Alissa Walker. The book is on sale now at the online Metro Store. All essays will also be posted on The Source in the coming weeks. The series was edited by Linda Theung, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles.

A Station Made of Paper
by David Kipen

“There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. She wasn’t carrying anything but a paperback which she dumped in the first trash can she came to.”
—Raymond Chandler, Playback, 1958

Urban legend would have you believe that Union Station was literally built out of newspapers. To help kill the echo, the building’s architects mixed yesterday’s papers into the acoustic tile of the ticket hall.

Somewhere up there, mulched together, resound the brash voices of all those old 1939 tabloids and broadsheets. Not just the once-titanic Los Angeles Times, but the likes of the Los Angeles Daily News, Hollywood Citizen News, the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner (so invulnerable in its Byzantine casbah at Twelfth Street and Broadway) and the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express—herald itself of all the doomed shotgun newspaper mergers to come.

Ever since it opened, the popular press and the fate of Union Station have intertwined. The year Union Station opened is the same year that Los Angeles discovered itself in literature. There had been books from L.A. before, even good ones, but nothing that rivaled Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, or Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, all published in 1939.

Even Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, written but not set here, qualifies—if you’re willing to read the story of a wartime quadruple amputee as an allegory of the Hollywood screenwriter and his work. For its redefinition of an entire genre, though, and its inexhaustible legacy, there is nothing to compare to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and his private detective, Philip Marlowe.

There may be a natural tendency to regard each of these books, like the release dates of the year’s movies, in a vacuum. The year of 1939 becomes just a number after the title, a glyph, occasionally noticed for its stubborn recurrence in cultural annals, but, at best, a coincidence.

To live through the year 1939 in Los Angeles must have been something else altogether. The Wizard of Oz (directed—mostly—by Victor Fleming, and written by everybody and his Aunt Lillian) came out in August. Gone with the Wind (also directed—again mostly—by Fleming), Of Mice and Men, Destry Rides Again and The Hunchback of Notre Dame all opened in the single month of December.

Imagine deciding tonight whether to see that new Civil War picture, the one with Clark Gable? Or that other one, the musical, with that cute girl from the Andy Hardy movies? All these films and books overlapped, even competed against one another. They came up in the same water-cooler conversations, and advertised in the same newspapers that, in early May, carried banner headlines of a certain new transportation amenity.

Obviously, yet somehow not quite, there was a lot happening in 1939 beyond those picture houses and bookshops. In August the Hitler-Stalin pact stunned few corners of the world more than Boyle Heights. There, a young generation of Jewish socialists had just begun to realize that the next Five-Year Plan included quotas for more than just wheat.

What would it be like to read Los Angeles in 1939 like a newspaper, even a novel? To unthresh and peel down from the walls of Union Station all the stories of that year, not just its fires and floods but its crimes and solutions, its trials and verdicts, the sob stories, the stories within stories, the whole ball of yarn entire? To rack focus on a full twelve months, foreground the background, background the foreground—to recognize, for instance, that the day Union Station first opened to the public coincided with an annular solar eclipse.

The Los Angeles of 1939 looms over the adjacent years like a mansionized bungalow over its more modest neighbors. You can’t help but wonder if anybody suspected. The Big Sleep came out earlier in the year, in February. Didn’t Los Angeles Times book critic Paul Jordan-Smith, no dummy by any stretch, begin to notice that the city was retroactively wiping the floor with every other city’s combined literary output for the last several years?

Or what about Wilbur Needham, the gentleman bookseller who, on February 19, on page C6 of the Times, reviewed The Big Sleep in three paragraphs, saying it “out-Cains James M. Cain”? Did he or his wife, Ida, have no inkling that their shopwindow of “local authors” might someday require an armed guard for sale at auction?

Seventy-five years later, Needham Book Finders still exists, though long since fled to the higher ground and lower rents of Valencia. One hopes their old invoices and correspondence, maybe even Wilbur’s old typescript reviews, survived the move.

She hung up and went to the magazine rack, picked up a New Yorker, looked at her watch again, and sat down to read. . . . Subject was reading her magazine and toying with coffee and a snail.

Did Chandler realize that Philip Marlowe and Union Station were contemporaries? In his 1958 novel Playback, he set the entire five-page second chapter in and around the station. It’s a terrific set-piece—and an underrated book, far better written than Chandler purists would have you believe. They prefer the early stuff, of course, faulting Playback for its origins as a screenplay, and because of the author’s own low opinion of it. But the train station scene in particular still crackles with Chandler’s signature rhythms and undiminished wit.

Chapter Two of Playback also gives a tour of Union Station that cannot be improved upon—it would make a docent put his foot through one of the concourse’s enormous arched windows. The Mary Colter–designed Fred Harvey restaurant, the taxi stand, and most importantly, the newsstand, all figure in Marlowe’s surveillance of a mysterious woman just off a train.

A “snail,” by the way, is a pastry, usually a danish. More significantly, a New Yorker is a magazine published in Manhattan that was once de rigueur on newsracks and coffee tables nationwide, hardly the upmarket item that it has since become. Chandler’s treatment of printed matter in this whole scene is suggestive of any number of rich themes, beginning with “the subject’s” unceremonious first-paragraph dumping of the paperback she brought with her on the train. Might this be an expression of Chandler’s ambivalence about the disposable pocketbooks that made his name?

I had an early-morning edition of the evening paper and behind it I watched her and added up what I had in my head. None of it was solid fact. It just helped to pass the time.

Time passes, of course, even without Detective Marlowe’s help. Once, the headlines pulped inside the station walls didn’t just talk, they screamed. But the screamers have all gone silent now. The trench warfare of exclusives, fought edition by ink-damp edition, have yielded to dogfought air wars of braying hounds after a nimble Fox. Los Angeles Union Station’s distant ceiling is a newspaper morgue turned upside down.

From at least 1939 onward, the newspapers and rolling stock of Los Angeles have waxed and withered and in perfect synchrony. Fluctuations in ridership and readership have tracked almost exactly.

If Angelenos had rediscovered train travel three decades ago, rather than lately, this city might have stayed a two-paper town. The Herald-Examiner only hung on as long as it did while waiting for a subway that never arrived. More important, if the Los Angeles Times doesn’t recognize pretty soon that potential readers no longer get around solely by car, the newly-minted L.A. Register might just eat the Times’ breakfast. And this city might just wind up a real two-paper town after all.

Chandler never worked in newspapers, but he read them with relish, and often with venom. He never worked hard at much at all until he found his voice in the pulpy pages of Black Mask Magazine. But if Chandler had built a train station, Union Station is the kind of station he would have built.

Like Chandler’s best work, the design of Union Station by John Parkinson and his son Donald makes a classical structure modern, and a modern, classic. The architecture is Mission Moderne—as incompatible a phrase in its day as “the literature of detection,” which hardly anybody then considered literature at all.

From the first inviting shadow of the Moorish clocktower portico to the last view up the tracks from Platform 14, Union Station is, like Raymond Chandler’s fiction, escapism raised to the level of art. It’s a jazz riff played on a mission bell, a baptismal font full of bathtub gin.

And when God saw it, seventy-five years ago, He winked.

David Kipen
is founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library and neighborhood bookshop in Boyle Heights. Book critic for Los Angeles magazine, he was previously the literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts. Kipen has freelanced for National Public Radio, The New York Times, and, where he is a contributing writer.

Related stories:
Essay by Alissa Walker
Essay by William D. Estrada

2 replies

  1. I have heard that the large windows in the ticketing room used to be covered in Venetian blinds that created strips of smoky noirish rays of light that were extremely evocative. Any photo evidence of that?

    • Hi Roger;

      If so, I haven’t seen any photos of it. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source