This is 30: On the subway to the sea

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve probably heard about some of Metro’s ambitious transit construction projects, like the three new rail stations in DTLA that opened earlier this month. In this post, award-winning author and critic David Ulin reflects on the extension of Metro’s D (Purple) Line to the Westside, which is poised to transform the way Angelenos get around. Read on to learn why he’s optimistic about transit’s potential to connect Los Angeles to itself. 

Photo by Aurelia Ventura

By David L. Ulin

Many years ago, not long after I moved to Los Angeles, I got into an argument at a community meeting about what Antonio Villaraigosa would later call the “subway to the sea.” This was before Villaraigosa’s tenure as mayor, when the D Line was still the Red Line (not even, yet, the Purple) and featured a mere five stops. I had ridden it the day it opened, driving to the station where I joined a surprising crowd for what felt a lot like a day at an amusement park, complete with swag (including a cardboard replica of a subway car) and something not unlike a sense of wonder, of being out of place. I felt like that a lot back then, not quite two years after moving from New York. I’d come to Union Station out of a sense of … not quite nostalgia but rather lostness. I was looking to connect. I have long loved subways, yet this line was so short, 2.4 miles in each direction, I wasn’t sure I saw the point. Then again, it was a start.

This, in its way, was the cause of the argument — what would happen next? I was living in the Fairfax District, and the extension of the subway west on Wilshire Boulevard was a subject of debate. At the meeting, I spoke in favor of expansion. A neighbor disagreed. “You wouldn’t want a subway stop on your block, would you?” he asked. I would be delighted, I assured him, to have a station in front of my house.

Was I thinking of New York? How could I not? I was a newcomer to Los Angeles and I had no sense as yet of how the city worked. At the same time, I want to say, Three decades later, I am still waiting for a subway to which I can walk. But one is coming. If the D Line is no longer planned to go all the way to the Pacific, it will, at least come close. In 2024, Metro is scheduled to open the first three of seven new stations, including a stop at Wilshire and Fairfax. If this is not my block, it’s close enough. For the last several years, I’ve followed the construction, not just there but also at the stations-to-be on La Brea and La Cienega. It feels like a promise is about to be fulfilled.

The D (Purple) Line goes West! At Wilshire/Fairfax Station. Photo by Aurelia Ventura

Wilshire/Fairfax Station under construction. Photo by Aurelia Ventura

Wilshire/Fairfax Station slowly comes to life. Photo by Aurelia Ventura

For me, such a promise is about more than my own desire or convenience. It has to do with the city and how we see ourselves. For too long, Los Angeles has been under the sway of the automobile. We know this; it is one of our most abiding clichés. Speed and light, the lure of easy movement; Reyner Banham, in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, referred to the car as our native tongue. Banham wasn’t incorrect, exactly, but his perspective was too narrow. The accessibility he championed has long since become terminal gridlock; the liberty the freeways seemed to promise has been revealed as illusory. This is not only the case when it comes to transportation but also segregation and social polity. Think about the freeways today and it is impossible not to consider all the ways they wall off many corners of the city, particularly to the south and east.

I’m no Pollyanna. I understand that public transportation is not enough, on its own, to unite us, to help bring us together in a fundamental sense. I understand that ridership is down and crime is up, that in just the first three months of 2023 alone, more than 20 people died on Metro, many from drug overdoses. I understand that not enough communities are served. And yet, I can’t help thinking of an unofficial map, created four years ago by a designer named Josh Vredevoogd, imagining what a built out transit system might look like in 2050.

Josh Vredevoogd’s fantasy map of Metro in 2050

To encounter Vredevoogd’s grid — a mesh of bus and train routes, stretching from Chatsworth to Anaheim, Inglewood to Burbank — is like looking at a circulatory system, all those lines converging and connected, a portrait of the city underneath the skin.

It is a reminder, or better yet: a wish.

This is what I wanted when I attended that community meeting, when I rode the Red Line on its opening day. It’s what I want each time I pass the construction site across from LACMA, where the Wilshire/Fairfax station is being dug. Not for Los Angeles to become New York — may the universe forbid — but for it to become more essentially itself. If we are all here together, then we must be all here together, out of our cars and in the shared space mass transit affords.

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6 replies

  1. No restrooms? Many cannot ride Metro trains because there are no restroom facilities. It’s shameful that Metro ignores basic human needs.

  2. Metro should come up with a plan to build out the full “subway to the sea” as originally envisioned. It doesn’t even seem clear whether this is a long term desire of Metro anymore. It should, at the very least, be listed as an “unfunded” eventual project.

  3. My fantasy map has some of the same ideas for lines as shown on this map! I guess great minds think alike. Extension of rail from NoHo through Glendale to Pasadena (not a bus)
    The line up Vermont (from San Pedro) cutting through Silver Lake to Glendale.
    And the El Monte- Dodger Stadium-West Hollywood- Venice line– I truly thought I was only crazy to dream up a line like that. I nicknamed it the ‘Cross-town” as it literally does.
    The center core of that line from the Red Line to Alhambra would be a great start and think of the major places that hits- Dodger Stadium, Union Station, General Hospital and Cal State LA.
    Build that as a core and keep adding on the ends. Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming..

  4. Thanks for sharing. I feel the same in that I viewed MetroRail as a way to connect disparate Los Angeles and its unconnected neighborhoods. I used to take the 320 bus to Wilshire/Western and jump on what was called the Red Line in those days to my job Downtown in the late 90’s and if anything service is worse and less frequent today than it was then for that trip.

    There have been a lot of Metro missteps along the way including building too much slow light rail, allowing drugs and crime to take over the trains and so on. Hopefully, Metro restores decent service on the subway and other rail lines. Opening the partial Subway to the Sea can’t come soon enough.

  5. There are 7 new stations on this line, not six as he states in the third paragraph!