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From east to west, steel rails pull L.A. together

You may not feel it yet, but one day you will.

Los Angeles is shrinking.

So much so that one day it will be possible to speed without the use of a car from Westwood to East L.A. for a squash blossom quesadilla fix at noon -- and still make it back to the Westside for a 2 p.m. meeting.

That day’s still far off. But it got a little closer this month, thanks to the opening of the first Metro stations on the east side of the L.A. River.

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Until recently, getting to an Eastside community like Boyle Heights without driving required Zen-like patience. You had to take a jostling ride on one of the three bus lines that run through the neighborhood’s congested, narrow thoroughfares.

Nathan Baird, 30, a graduate student and urban explorer from Pasadena, got to know those buses well.

“They were always crowded and moved really slow,” he told me. One night, he and his girlfriend waited for one for two hours on a Boyle Heights street corner.

No longer. Boyle Heights is now served by a 21st-century subway.

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Half a century after the city tore up the last of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Red Car lines, you can glide on steel to East L.A. once again.

I decided to celebrate this landmark of L.A. transportation history with a historic ride of my own -- a solo crossing of the city aided only by public transit and my weary, middle-aged feet.

I left Westwood Village late on a weekday afternoon heading for Boyle Heights and a popular sidewalk eatery, where I would meet up with Baird.

It was a journey across the many geographic and social divides that separate our East from our West, through the L.A. that was and the L.A. that will be.

Half of this trip took place on bus and half on rail. Guess which was faster?

I jumped on a so-called Metro Rapid bus at the corner of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards, and squeezed into a seat next to a kindly transient who was chewing on a hot dog. He offered me some of his chips.

“No thanks,” I said, with an eager smile. “I’m going to East L.A. for dinner!”

The Metro Rapid bus that I was on was actually two buses, the halves connected by a sort of bellows like an accordion. The ride over Wilshire was surprisingly bumpy. And slow, especially as we passed Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

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Outside the bus windows, I saw several exquisite examples of architecture from L.A.'s glory days, including the old May Co. and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores.

As we rolled though the Miracle Mile, I felt momentarily transported to the 1950s and ‘60s, that era when L.A. embraced gasoline-powered chariots as the solution to its growing transportation needs. The last of the Red Cars stopped running in 1958, and pretty soon not even the widest freeways could accommodate the surging traffic.

My bus passed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its garden filled with bronze Rodin sculptures. Finally, we arrived at Western Avenue, and I checked the time -- it had taken me 40 minutes to travel eight miles.

As I scrambled onto the sidewalk, past the jade-colored tower of the Wiltern Theater, I remembered visiting a dentist’s office there in the early 1970s. About the same time, L.A. voters rejected an initiative for a 1-cent sales tax to fund mass transit.

Now, three decades later, I was rushing into an actual subway station, where I hopped onto the Purple Line for a smooth ride under the city. At Union Station, I switched to the Gold Line, gliding on rails high above the bumper-to-bumper 101 Freeway. Seated by a window, I watched the sky turn orange behind the Civic Center.

When I arrived at the Mariachi Plaza station, I found three mariachis sitting on a bench outside. I had completed the six-mile rail portion of my journey in just 23 minutes.

In all, including some walking and waiting, my crosstown jaunt had taken 1 hour and 12 minutes. If and when the Subway to the Sea is ever built, the same trip should take about 40 minutes, according to MTA planners.

I walked quickly past Mariachi Plaza’s old concrete gazebo, which would fit right into any rural Mexican town. Soon I was standing with Baird on a stretch of sidewalk occupied by Salvador Ortega and members of his extended family. The Ortegas work over a portable stove and steaming pots filled with sauces.

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Ortega’s been running his Antojitos Carmen food business at various Boyle Heights street corners for nearly two decades.

“With this food,” Ortega told me, “I raised my family.”

Until recently, they were located along with many other vendors at what came to be known as the Breed Street Food Fair, an informal market that was a favorite of food critic Jonathan Gold. Then, about the same time the nearby subway opened, police cleared the illegal vendors out.

“It got too popular,” Ortega said.

Antojitos Carmen was forced to move to another location, though Baird and other loyal customers have been able to follow them to their new digs via Twitter.

“They cater to the tastes of native people and not to American tastes,” said Baird, who’s also a self-described foodie.

Ortega offered us a squash-blossom quesadilla and also pambazos and tacos de huitlacoche (corn-fungus tacos). As I bit into these exotic and quintessentially Mexican dishes I thought: I sure am far from Westwood now.

Baird lives in Pasadena but routinely takes public transit to Boyle Heights, and not just for the Mexican food. There’s a legendary sushi joint near the Soto Street station and challah for sale in some local markets.

“The whole world is here,” he told me.

It will cost a few billion dollars more to extend the subway to the ocean. But doing so will make our sprawling city smaller. Like the transcontinental railroad, it’s a grand project that will unite a diverse people. Working people will get to their jobs faster, and you won’t have to be an urban adventurer like Baird to explore new corners of the city.

Keep tunneling. Pour the concrete and lay the rails. I like gliding through my city on steel. Because you never know what you’ll find at the next station.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


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