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 are posted on The Source. The series was edited by Linda Theung, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles.
Union Station: Time and Again
by D. J. Waldie
If it’s possible for a place to have memories of its own, 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.
Time was when a giant sycamore shaded native Tongva elders debating village disputes a few hundred feet from where the station’s tracks would be laid. The arrival of Spanish colonists from Sonora and Sinaloa in 1781 swept aside the elders and the village. The sycamore lived on—more than sixty feet high, spreading nearly two hundred feet—until it was felled in 1892.
Later still, the neighborhood that grew up around the sycamore was so culturally diverse that Chinese herbalists dealt from clapboard shops next to tenements occupied by exiled pacifist Russian Molokans and refugees from Mexico’s revolutions. The shops and the tenements were razed by 1936 for the building of Union Station.
Some of the Mexican refugees had already become vendors on Olvera Street. Some of the Chinese moved to New Chinatown not far away. By design, the builders of Union Station reframed the image of Los Angeles for tourists. Some of their first sights would be fantasies of exoticism.
To arrive at the station most travelers would have passed through the San Fernando Valley, quartered into orchards and ranches in the 1940s and subdivided into suburban house lots in the 1950s. As they neared the station, their train would have followed the trace of the Los Angeles River, an open wash in 1939, but by 1945, already a concrete-lined channel in the making.
Arriving passengers in those years would have stepped down from their Pullman car, walked the echoing tunnel beneath the tracks, and entered the station—a space both monumental and deferential, designed to impress and reassure. Outside, Los Angeles sprawled and brawled and offered the traveler the option, if he was willing to pay the price, to endlessly reinvent himself.
Inside, in the minute or two it took to walk beneath the painted ceilings and past the waves of colored tile on the walls, Union Station would have had just enough time to say to the new arrivals, “You’ve come to Los Angeles where brilliant light is dominant, but see how it’s tempered by this space, these fountains, and these flowering trees.” The travelers’ first experience of Los Angeles would have been that transformed brightness.
Commuters arriving at Union Station today aboard the Metro Red and Purple Lines or Metrolink and Amtrak trains pass through that same light, unchanged in seventy-five years. Marble blocks in the floor are grooved from the tread of vacationers, aspiring starlets, and the unremarked mass of those embracing or abandoning Los Angeles—and, if you cannot put yourself in their shoes, you can put yourself in the light they encountered. It puts you outside of ordinary time. It’s still the light of nowhere else but Union Station.