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Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis

How the new Expo Line from Santa Monica to downtown changed my life

I’d like to tell you I’ve been waiting for the subway to the sea all my life, except I never believed it would happen, so I never wasted a moment in anticipation.  

(A subway to the airport? Now that is something I’ve pined for. And I might even live long enough to see it.)

This week, after the hoopla died down, I decided to take the Metro’s new Expo Line to work, from seaside Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. Maybe this could become a habit. Over the years, the daily freeway commute has gone from annoying to soul-crushing. The idea of cruising along Exposition Boulevard parallel with the Santa Monica Freeway at speeds approaching cheetah was irresistible.

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However, there’s nowhere to park at the Santa Monica station, and it’s nearly three miles from my home in Venice. I ordered a Lyft.

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Like most Lyft drivers I have encountered, the young man who picked me up does something else in real life. He grew up in Spain, just finished architecture school and is working toward his license here. His mother, an American flight attendant, met his father, a Spaniard, on a plane.

As I have Lyfted back and forth to the Expo Line in the last two days, my drivers included an oil and gas engineer who described his stay in one of North Dakota’s infamous “man camps;” a woman who authorizes surgeries at UCLA; and an assistant manager in the Nordstrom women’s shoes department who divulged how he persuades some ladies that they need a larger size. (“These shoes run small!”) 

I never would have met these folks had I stayed in my car.

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There is something exhilarating about seeing familiar scenery, even mundane stuff, from a different vantage point. The Expo Line sailed east, past Santa Monica College, past Bergamot Station. Some stations were elevated, some were ground level.

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As we pulled out of the LATTC/Ortho Institute station, at Flower and 23rd downtown, I noticed a school garage with a “Collision Repair” sign. I pulled out my phone and Googled L.A. Trade Technical College’s automotive program. Last summer, someone driving my car smashed the front bumper against a curb. It might have been me. In any case, body work is expensive, and I had been putting it off.

To my delight, I discovered that anyone can fill out a service request for LATTC students to perform repairs and body work.

“We don’t charge anything for labor, just parts,” said Jesus “Jess” Guerra, director of LATTC’s Transportation Workforce Institute, one of the college’s flagship programs. Students who earn certificates have no trouble finding jobs, he told me, often landing positions even before they finish school.

The only caveat on the repair program, he said, is that the work has to align with whatever is being taught at a given moment. “We would not take a transmission problem during the air-conditioning class,” he said. (The schedules are posted online.)

I have driven past LATTC a million times, but I would never have noticed the car repair sign had I not taken the Metro to work.

I decided to walk to the Los Angeles Times office after surfacing at Seventh and Flower in the Jewelry District. Near Bottega Louie, the restaurant that seems to have sparked the macaron craze here, I happened to pass an unusual little street, St. Vincent’s Court. It is a dead-end block, full of old-fashioned delis and restaurants with crazy looking facades. (“A real street that looks fake,” was the title of a YouTube video about St. Vincent’s Court.)

It was so charming and unfamiliar, I took the Expo Line back on Tuesday to get a second look.

“You got here too late,” said Kachin Celik, 66, who was sitting in front of his restaurant, the Tulip Cafe, rolling napkins around silverware before the lunch rush. He meant that in the cosmic sense. “We’re barely making it here.”

Three years ago, as my colleague Frank Shyong then reported, the restaurants along St. Vincent’s Court spilled onto the street, their tables, chairs, flowers and trees making it festive, but nearly impassable for delivery trucks needing to access the renovated Los Angeles Theatre’s loading docks at the end of the block. The city cracked down, the merchants scaled back, and business is down, some 50%, according to Celik, who runs the cafe with his 24-year-old son Adam.

“A lot of people don’t know this place,” Adam said. “They call it a ‘hidden gem,’ this whole alley.”

It’s a funky, unpolished outpost with an Old World, kitschy vibe, like a low-rent version of Universal CityWalk. I strolled past small groups of Armenian men — Jewelry District guys — sipping coffee at outdoor tables. I stopped at Garo’s Deli for an espresso. 

I never would have discovered St. Vincent Court had I not taken the Expo Line to work.

Earlier that morning, as I boarded the Expo Line in Santa Monica, I ran into my colleague, Christopher Hawthorne, The Times’ architecture critic. 

We talked about the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We gossiped about colleagues. And we agreed that for us, anyway, the Expo Line was probably impractical for a daily commute. On Monday, it had taken me nearly an hour and 40 minutes to get from my door to my desk. That compares to my usual 45 minutes or so in the car.

“But you know,” Hawthorne said, “we never would have bumped into each other if we were sitting in our cars.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

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