The sun had not yet risen when the first commuter train in nearly half a century set off from downtown to East Los Angeles, extending a new line of public transportation to some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.
At 3:40 a.m. Sunday the first passengers were train enthusiasts, students and workers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which built the six-mile Gold Line extension. A few hours later, the neighborhood showed up.
More than 50,000 people were estimated to have taken part in a festive day of celebration and free rides. Starting today, riding the entire 20-mile Gold Line route from Pasadena to East L.A.'s Atlantic station will cost a nominal $1.25.
“I feel like East L.A. matters a little bit more,” said longtime resident Joe Zenteno, 40, just minutes after rolling his bike into a sleek Metro train at the Mariachi Plaza stop in Boyle Heights. “I love East L.A., bro. This is a good neighborhood. And I think this is going to make people care a little bit more about their community.”
One question in the minds of local officials and business owners is whether others across Los Angeles County will be drawn to the area as well.
For years, Boyle Heights and East L.A. have been among the most public transportation-dependent neighborhoods in Southern California.
For even longer, they have lacked the kind of regional draw -- a multiplex, a gleaming shipping district, a major entertainment center -- that can enhance civic pride. While the Gold Line’s northern link from Pasadena passes such landmarks as Old Town, the Southwest Museum and Chinatown, the route through East L.A. finds places prized more by locals: revered burrito joints and Mexican restaurants, a well-trodden 19th century cemetery surrounded by a jogging track, and a plaza where you can hire a band of mariachis on the fly.
To many outsiders, the area is seen as a collection of poor and dangerous neighborhoods, despite historic drops in violent crime. That’s one reason Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who is also an MTA board member, said the Gold Line’s opening is so meaningful.
When John Peckham, a visitor from faraway Torrance, told him Sunday that he was pleasantly surprised by the neighborhood, Huizar smiled and raised his arms: “I’ve been saying that all day!”
A major impetus for the $898-million rail line was to make it easier and cheaper for residents to reach jobs in downtown and beyond. But the Gold Line extension is also important because of the promise it portends, Huizar said. He believes it could spark a renaissance, ushering in businesses and an arts district and leading to the discovery of neighborhoods that have “been neglected” for decades.
“People are going to come to explore,” he said.
Irma Lozano, 38, sure hopes so. On Sunday, she peeked through an open door at Mi Ranchito restaurant near the Soto Street Station in Boyle Heights.
Like many small businesses along the route, the eatery paid a heavy toll during the roughly five years of construction when the street out front was torn up.
For two years its kitchen was all but closed, essentially turning the place into a bar with only a few dishes, mostly soups.
“With the recession and construction, business just stopped,” Lozano said. “It’s been terrible with the customers. But I think the train is going to help us now.”
“That’s what you hope,” said Ruben Garcia, 40, one of only three customers in the place.
Charles Sammis, a USC professor of Earth sciences who lives in South Pasadena, said he plans to come back. The 65-year-old Sammis and his 63-year-old wife, Judy, a high school physics and math teacher, said they were excited to see the rail extension.
“We’re looking forward to trying new places to eat,” he said.
Roger Moliere, chief of real property management and development for the MTA, said several development projects are planned near stations, though he added that the recession was gumming up the process.
“My hope and expectation is that it will be an extraordinary economic boon to the area,” he said.
Eric Avila, a professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA, said the Gold Line extension is a victory for social justice, and signals a shift in transportation planning. The freeways built around Boyle Heights “cordoned off the area from the rest of the city,” he said.
But development of the rail line hasn’t come without safety concerns. The Eastside extension dips underground in only a few spots. Most of it travels like a stitched-in zipper through narrow streets, at surface level and usually just feet away from cars.
While praising the rail line, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has argued that the route needs crossing arms at some intersections.
During the first 90 days of operation, the MTA will have “safety ambassadors” to help riders and pedestrians get acclimated to the line.
Sunday morning began with relatively few riders, but by early afternoon the platforms were overcrowded, there were lines to get on the trains, and passengers squeezed together in standing-room-only cars.
There were a few snags, including a door that wouldn’t fully close when a train stopped at Mariachi Plaza and an elevator that didn’t work there -- forcing some to carry strollers up three flights of stairs.
But the mood was decidedly cheerful.
Accordion player Roberto Olmos, 62, said he boarded the train in Boyle Heights to deliver a small bag of tamales to his wife in East L.A.
“It’s a lot faster than the bus,” he said. “Sometimes you’re waiting for almost an hour for a bus.”
Victor Orozco, 57, rode the train with his 9-year-old grandson, Jacob Astorga. Orozco, a Caltrans worker from La Habra, said his father used to take him on a rail car that rolled down First Street when he was a boy. Los Angeles’ streetcar system began disappearing in the early 1960s.
“I wanted my grandson to be part of this,” Orozco said.
As he hopped on the train with his wife and 8-month-old son, machinist Victor Vasquez, 38, said he wouldn’t use the train to go to work because his job is so close to their home.
His wife, Alejandra Jeronimo, 27, works at a bakery within walking distance. But Vasquez said they would use the Gold Line for other trips.
As Vasquez spoke, his son, Jose Armando, jumped excitedly on his mother’s lap and peered out the window.
“We love to go out,” Vasquez said. “I’m already seeing places we’d like to visit using the train.”
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.