It was 2004 at one of those apartments near Franklin and Gower where you don’t expect air conditioning. I was at my friend’s place, a recent transplant from Philadelphia who had been living in this cockroach confine for a year.
The conversation moved into the compulsory East Coast vs. Los Angeles debate that happens with everyone who moves three time zones over. As always, the topics are the same: seasons vs. great weather, cabs vs. freeways, snow vs. surf, loud vs. fake people and so on.
Once we got through the checklist, we broached a topic that had never come up: the subway in LA. Being transit oriented, I was well prepared to cover all angles, but in this case I wasn’t. The argument was not about the normal complaints, like its usefulness, cost or level of service. Instead, I was caught off guard. I had to actually defend its existence.
Even though we were only three blocks away from the nearest station, he was completely oblivious to what was there. Mind you, this wasn’t any regular entry for the subway. It resides at one of the most busy and famous intersections in the world, Hollywood and Vine.
While my friend admitted to passing it before, he was utterly convinced it was an entry to a parking garage. To him, Los Angeles was a city too big for a subway and that it would be too costly to ever build (kind of a half-truth). Plus, if there really was such a thing, how come he never heard of it. Never.
Since this argument pre-dated smart phones, the best I could do was expunge as many intimate facts to convince him this wasn’t an elaborate joke. After a half hour, I just said eff it, we’re going over there.
Of course, we had a separate argument about whether to drive there, but after an eight-minute walk my conspiracy theory would be debunked. We descended down the escalator past the Hollywood inspired chotchkies (now gone), into a highly articulated chamber. It was styled after many local monuments and objects of film lore. For a transit station, it was large, ornate and clean. Figuring the experience would speak for itself, my friend turned to me and said, “It’s got to be for a movie”, and then left.
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Point being, we have a subway. It’s usage is growing and so are many developments popping up around it. What makes it unique from other systems is the amount of design put into a majority of the stations. In most other cities, each stop is very cookie cutter. Who can blame them? Subways are expensive to build.
Perhaps the thinking was people aren’t going to believe we have a subway, so we better give them something to remember. Here are my Top Five stops on the Metro Red Line. It’s only opinion, so everyone has their own preferences. Mine change all the time, but never again now that it’s on paper.
5. Pershing Square
If you have a limited vocabulary, then you have the skills to describe this station. It’s simple and straightforward. I enjoy it for it’s permanence. The long semi-cylindrical effect from the ceiling helps you understand the concept of infinity. It reminds me most of the Sea of Holes from the Yellow Submarine. With the space being properly lit, it makes you feel like you’re seeing everything through the eye of a retina display. No matter how dirty the station gets, it always seems clean.
This is a station I purely judge on taste. That taste may not be good, but it stands out. It is the closest station that reminds me of the forward thinking you see in Europe. If the famous architect Corbusier had terrible cataracts, maybe he could have designed it. The color palette consists primarily of varying shades of blue along with some bright colors mixed in. A tribute to the of Red Line cars of time ago is a bit out of place, but still appreciated. The transit development above the surface is a bit more successful in its styling, but not complete. Hollywood/Western is a departure from the other designs and I appreciate the effort. I’m sure it’ll totally get redone at some point.
3. Union Station
I know what you’re thinking. This should be ranked way higher. I agree. Sort of. Since the subway was only an addition to the existing complex, I call that cheating. Union Station is one of my most cherished places in the city. It has maintained the same elegance over 75 years and similarly has the feel of its European counterparts as transit usage is expanding.
Still, the subway portion is about as utilitarian as it comes. Nothing to see here. I’ll give it credit through osmosis.
This is easily the most articulated station on the Red Line. Every square inch is designed, which is the polar opposite to the equally frequented Hollywood/Highland stop down the street. You enter to a latticed arched interior that is a one of kind. Once you’ve passed into the paid area, you’re greeted by vintage projectors that remind you of Hollywood’s heyday. My most favorite feature is the ceiling made up of an endless stock of film reels. I may not have noticed it the first few times I visited, but it’s these types of details that makes this station special.
1. Universal City/Studio City
Overall, there isn’t a lot to this station. My love for it comes solely from the ceramic murals that depict California’s history. Not only are they colorful, intricate and beautiful, but they are highly informative. One side tells the story in English, the other in Spanish. On every trip, I try to read all the panels, but normally get interrupted when my train arrives. If you get through all the wording, it ties into the whole background of Campo de Cahuenga, which is the adobe that sits just above. Most aren’t aware when they pass through the site that is where the treaty to end hostilities in the Mexican-American war was signed. The murals do an excellent job giving proper context to how the nation’s greatest state grew out of its modest origins.
All photos by Zachary Rynew unless otherwise noted.
Zachary Rynew has touched Los Angeles in many ways. For years he helped visualize many of the city’s major projects (LA Live, Hollywood Blvd., Metro Rail, UCLA) and had his work featured at the Getty. He was a winner at the LA Improv Comedy Festival and ran in five LA Marathons. Now, he travels the city by bike and couples his local knowledge with his sports writing experience to bring you a different look at the blurs we normally pass by.