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12.18.2009
Test Run
Riding LA's new Gold Line extension
A train pulls up to the Atlantic station on LA's new Gold Line.
Courtesy Barrio Planners

As an unapologetic, unwavering supporter of Los Angeles’ public transit system, willing to defend Metro like it’s my kid sister, I try my hardest to use my journalistic influence to lure car-strapped Angelenos onto buses and trains. But on November 15, as Metro’s Gold Line Eastside extension rolled out of downtown’s Union Station and into East Los Angeles, heralded by 50,000 fans, thousands of blog posts, and at least a hundred mariachis, I felt for once that the city’s enthusiasm seemed to match— and possibly exceed—my zealotry.

The latest segment in LA’s nascent Metro system is the shortest (six miles) and expects the lowest ridership (only 13,000 a day, compared to over 100,000 on the Red Line), but it’s clearly the most important thing to happen to the city’s transit system thus far. Where Los Angeles transit discussions have mostly revolved around NIMBYs howling about the possibility that lower-income populations would overrun their neighborhoods, the Gold Line flips the paradigm. If public transit is urban democracy, the great leveler, then these eight shiny stations parading east into a traditional Mexican community seem to grant instant permission to curious Westsiders who want to explore its streets.

I rode with the line’s lead architect Frank Villalobos on a preview a week before the opening. Pointing out various burrito and taco restaurants to the passengers on board, he agreed that neighborhood exposure was the single most important factor of the line. “People will not think of East Los Angeles as the violent, scary place they’ve heard about,” he said proudly. “They will see it’s a nice place.”

East LA's Civic Center station is an oasis amidst the asphalt.

If his commentary was personal, verging on emotional, it was well founded. His firm Barrio Planners, which is located in East LA, is uniquely intertwined with the project. They not only served as lead architects with AECOM, but also performed some of the earliest community outreach to bring a subway to the area two decades ago, and designed Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza, which the line passes beneath, as well as several of the transit-oriented development projects along the way. Barrio also selected a roster of designers who paired with artists to work together on each station, choosing a theme that nods to each neighborhood.

East LA was denied its proposed extension of the Red Line subway, which runs from downtown to North Hollywood, thanks to anti-subway sentiment in the 1990s perpetuated by city legislators. A prompt by then-Mayor Richard Reardon briefly resurrected the idea as a busway.

But when it was determined that a busway over LA’s historic bridges and narrow streets would require as much infrastructural development as a light rail line, the planners invented an alternative: a light rail-subway hybrid capable of traveling on former right-of-ways from streetcars, and below-grade or underground when required. The challenge then became to sell what was considered to be a “second-best” alternative for the marginalized community, said Metro planner James Rojas. “We had to convince the community that light rail was just as good,” he said.

The Maravilla Station sports lacy etched metal.

A ride on the Gold Line is one of the most dramatic routes in the city. New, silver bullet-like trains head south out of Union Station over a newly-constructed S-bridge built above the 101 freeway, with sweeping views of downtown. After stopping in Little Tokyo, the train snakes over the LA River on the 1st Street Bridge into Boyle Heights, where it makes one stop before slipping underground to two of the best stations: Mariachi Plaza and Soto (both designed by Barrio).

Mariachi Plaza is successful because the space itself was designed as a subway station when Barrio created the plaza in 1993 (a renovation was completed last year). The ascents from both underground stations are crowned with elements from traditional Mexican dress: for Mariachi Plaza, colors evoking the bright embroidery worn by mariachi and canopy cables strung like violine, their instrument. At Soto, the twirling, multi-colored layers allude to the skirts of female dancers, while canopies are copper to resemble ornamental combs.

Resurfacing again, the train stops at one of the six above-ground stations, which all loosely follow the same basic structure, using steel-framed, tensile Teflon canopies that peak and dip in different ways. The only above-ground station that bucks that trend is the exuberant East LA Civic Center. Here, the canopies explode into bright orange California poppies, a collaboration between Villalobos and artist Clement Hanami.

The Pico/Aliso station is more muscular.

While the whimsical stations are said to nod to the neighborhoods, my fear while riding the Gold Line was that in the bid to make them representative of the local residents, so over-the-top ethnic, they’ve become stereotypical. The East LA stations do not need to be flashy. These are the city’s most transit-dependent neighborhoods, and they don’t need great design to encourage resident users. Instead, the stations have become—however misguided, in some cases—civic pride translated into the built environment: new, tourist-friendly landmarks for a community on the brink of reinventing itself that say, “Come see us now!”

Perhaps this is how we need to see our quickly expanding rail lines: as the city’s new cultural corridors, convincing more than the transit-dependent to ride them. Perhaps a fluorescent orange steel poppy, or a tensile Teflon canopy that looks like the snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, are just the touches needed to entice more people to explore, embrace, and understand this under-appreciated part of LA.

Alissa Walker