With bicycles, buses, ferries, planes, rideshares, sidewalks, subways, taxis, and trains at Angelenos’ disposal, why would any sane person choose car-dependency? Nobody Drives in LA celebrates sense and sensibility in transportation.
Phase 1 of the Los Angeles Metro‘s Expo Line was completed in June 2012 after first opening most of the line in April. I rode it a couple days after it opened and explored the immediate vicinity around each of the stations (except for the two that weren’t open). Earlier in the month I explored the route of the Crenshaw Line, which hasn’t yet begun construction. For this entry I decided to do something similar, exploring along the route of Phase 2 of the Expo Line, for which construction is coming along quickly.
By the time construction is completed, the train-adjacent landscape of the Westside will have changed. Some building are set to be demolished (one was being demolished on the day of my trek), and there are several transit-oriented commercial and residential developments.
Most of the Expo Line follows a train line that opened in 1875: the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad. That line was later used by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Los Angeles Railway, and finally, the Pacific Electric Railway. The latter railway ended passenger service in 1953. Freight trains continued to use the tracks until the late 1980s. The Expo Line is the first passenger train line on the Westside in half a century.
CULVER CITY STATION
The Expo Line currently ends in Downtown Culver City, so that’s where I disembarked. Culver City Station is located on the site of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad’s Ivy Station (later named Culver Junction after the addition of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Venice short line). The nearby Ivy Substation that used to provide electricity to the train is now used by Actor’s Gang Theatre.
It was an uncommonly hot January day as I headed seawards. Exiting the station and heading west across Robertson and Venice boulevards, one leaves Culver City and enters the Los Angeles neighborhood of Palms. Palms was established as “The Palms” in 1886 by a group of Brethren from Le Mars, Iowa (“The Ice Cream Capital of the World”). The small community was annexed by Los Angeles in 1915.
The neighborhood’s character is very different from that of the rest of the Westside. Most Palms residents rent rather than own and live in multi-dwelling units, making it the most densely-populated neighborhood on the Westside. It’s also the least-wealthy and most diverse neighborhood on the Westside. The area is home to several Brazilian, Indian, Indonesian, Oaxacan, and Pakistani restaurants and markets. It’s also home to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Iranian-American Muslim Association of North America, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
The Palms depot opened as “Bay View” in 1875, and the immediate vicinity still has the micro-neighborhood feel that I associate with areas that develop around train stations. The original Eastlake-style depot was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1963, and currently resides at the Heritage Square Museum in the Montecito Heights neighborhood. The site of the future National/Palms Station (which the Palms Neighborhood Council is attempting to get named simply “Palms Station”) is near the border of Palms and the Cheviot Hills neighborhood.
As I stopped to watch construction of the new station, I noticed someone else taking pictures. He introduced himself as Mike Warfield and told me that he lives right next to the construction. I asked him what he thought of the return of trains and he was entirely positive — despite the noise and dust. He’s a retiree and amateur photographer who has been photographing the construction’s progress since it began. He also told me that he decided after he bought his last tank of gas last June that he doesn’t want to drive anymore. Finally, he added that soon he’d be able to take the train to visit family members and the Exposition Park Rose Garden, and that the only downside he could see to not driving is carrying heavy bags of cat litter on public transportation.
After I said goodbye and headed west, I passed by a group of three boys speaking French on bicycles who were heading to the newest campus of Le Lycée Francais de Los Angeles. I stopped for lunch at my favorite Indonesian restaurant in Los Angeles, Simpang Asia. I might have followed lunch with a drink at Irish Times — a refreshingly unpretentious bar around the corner on Motor Avenue — but it was a bit early for me, being just after noon. Nonetheless, there were already barflies making merry. Other restaurants and bars near the site of the future station include Boardwalk 11, The Coop Pizza, El Nopal, Hu’s Szechwan, K & A Canton, Sushi Zo, Taco Plus, and the Vegan Joint.
After National/Palms Station the track turns north and runs parallel to Northvale Road between Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park. As I walked up Motor and then Northvale, the air quality improved noticeably, or at least grew fragrant with the scent of blossoming trees where before it had smelled like the fumes of the freeway. This section of the route is the most bucolic, situated as it is well below the houses on Northvale and lined by groves of trees and thick vegetation.
Most homes in Cheviot Hills were built between the 1930s and ’50s, due in part of the area’s proximity to passenger rail and Cheviot Hills Park (which went from being a bankrupt, private country club to the Westside’s first, large public park around 1945). Despite this history of transit-orientation and the fact that rail passed through there until roughly 25 years ago, a group of doomsayers called “Neighbors for Smart Rail” attempted and failed to stop (or radically alter) the construction of the Expo Line. Had the NIMBY-come-latelies succeeded, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky claimed, it would’ve cost taxpayers $90 million (as well as 4,000 jobs). Luckily for Expo fans, the State Supreme Court ruled that it could find “no merit in petitioner’s contentions” and construction chugs along.
The train will then pass beneath the Palms Recreation Center and by the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Branch Library, before again turning west and paralleling Exposition Boulevard. Rancho Park is mostly a quiet, residential neighborhood, although Pico Boulevard is a busy commercial corridor and home to the Westside Pavilion. Though not as diverse as Palms, it’s still diverse for the Westside with large percentages of Asian, German, Iranian and Mexican-American residents. Most of the single family homes in the area were built in the 1940s, around which time a distinct Rancho Park identity began to emerge — which includes streets lined with mature trees and faux 19th century street lights.
The future Expo/Westwood Station is being built between Overland Avenue and Westwood Boulevard near the former site of the Talmantes Station. About one and a half miles north up Westwood is Persian Square, and a corridor of Iranian businesses often referred to as “Tehrangeles.” Restaurants near the future station include The Apple Pan, Aroma Cafe, The Colony Cafe, Poquito Mas, and Steingarten LA. Also nearby is the Ferdinand R. Bain Mansion, built in 1925 for the then-president of the Southern Counties Gas Company, which later became part of Paramount Studios. Since 1949 it’s been part of Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls high school.
Continuing west, the Expo Line passes by rows of mature trees and other plants of various species. A plaque and numerous signs explain that this section of the former Air Line is the Sara Berman Greenway. Eighty-one trees in the greenway were donated by the Westside Homeowners Association and the greenway was dedicated by L.A. County in 2001.
On the border between Rancho Park and the Sawtelle neighborhood is the site of the Expo/Sepulveda Station, located on the former site of the Home Junction station. Home Junction’s name was a reference to the Soldier’s Home branch of the Pacific Electric Railway, which serviced the Sawtelle Veteran’s Home (now the West Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration).
Near the station exists CalPortland, a ready-mix cement plant that was recently purchased by a company with plans to build a development on the site that will include 538 apartments and a Target. Nearby restaurants include Big Tomy’s, Billingsley’s, Donut Star, El Super Taco, Hop Li Seafood Restaurant, Upstairs 2, and my favorite Brazilian place, Bossa Nova.
As I walked west I stopped to take a picture of Fantasy Island, a bikini bar with kitschy architecture. After I snapped a picture of the lighthouse tower, which has neon beer signs and nude silhouettes instead of a spotlight, a young man on a skateboard asked if there were any barbershops around. I replied that I didn’t know and he ducked into San Francisco Saloon. Not thirty seconds later I noticed an only slightly less impressive tower at Alexander’s Barbershop.
Heading west across Sepulveda is the Sawtelle neighborhood. Sawtelle was once a community named Barrett, named after the then-current manager of the veteran’s home, Andrew W. Barrett. When Barrett’s developers attempted to open a post office, “Barrett” was rejected on its similarity to that of Bassett, California. It was thus, in 1899, changed to Sawtelle, after W.E. Sawtelle — Barrett’s successor. Most of the town of Sawtelle was annexed by Los Angeles in 1922.
Sawtelle had become home to a large population of Japanese-Americans before annexation. By 1941 there were 26 Japanese-run nurseries in Sawtelle. The following year, all the Japanese-Americans were interred in concentration camps. After internment ended, some Japanese-Americans returned to Sawtelle, and to this day, less than half a mile west (and a little north) of the future Expo/Sepulveda Station is a corridor of largely Japanese businesses (including three nurseries) centered along Sawtelle Boulevard, nicknamed “Little Osaka.”
Further west, near Sawtelle’s border with Santa Monica, is the site of the coming Expo/Bundy Station, being built on the former site of Bundy Station. Restaurants near the site of the station include Arsenal, Bombay Café, Don Antonio’s, Echigo, La Talpa, a Norm’s, North End Pizzeria, Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, Teddy’s Cafe, Unurban Café, Upper West, Valentino, and Yabu. There’s also a proper dive bar (something very rare on the Westside), Liquid Kitty.
Crossing Centinela Avenue, one arrives in the city of Santa Monica. Santa Monica is a beachfront city that incorporated in 1886. It was famed as a resort town by the early 20th century. In the 1960s it became a popular destination, leading to its sometimes being referred to as “Little Britain.” Though the British population has decreased in recent years, “English-American” is the second largest ethnicity after Mexican-American and it’s still home to several English markets and pubs.
As I approached the future site of Olympic/26th Street Station (or possibly 26th St/Bergamot or 26th St/Arts District) I felt the ground shaking and heard an awful sound that resembled Godzilla‘s distinct roar. It turned out to be the demolition of Gallery 16, an (now former) art gallery at Bergamot Station. Bergamot Station is a sprawling, renowned arts facility that opened in Midtown Santa Monica in 1994 within facilities built for the old Los Angeles and Independence Railroad. Gallery 16 could have been spared and an unremarkable Verizon building demolished instead, had not some Stewart Park neighborhood NIMBYs predominated over the efforts of Bergamot Station artists and supporters. Despite the loss of Gallery 16, nearly thirty galleries remain, and I think it will be nice to put the “station” back in “Bergamot Station.”
The site is near restaurants including Bizou Grill, Gilbert’s El Indio, Josie, Le Petit Café, Tada, Tiato Kitchen Bar Garden, and of course, the Bergamot Café. My favorite place to eat around there is Rae’s, a diner that opened in 1958. The food is cheap and good, it’s been featured in many films and television episodes, and the ambiance can’t be beat. It’s also near the Morgan-Wixson Theatre (established in 1946) and the Water Garden, which, though an office complex, is a huge and lushly-landscaped place.
Heading west down Colorado, I passed several sites that will soon be gone — a Denny’s, Norm’s, and Wertz Brothers Antique Mart. I am a fan of Norm’s Googie architecture, and even the Denny’s has been there since 1968; but I’m not too sad about the likelihood that both will be replaced with large, transit-oriented mixed-use developments.
17TH STREET/COLORADO STATION
17th Street/Colorado Station (or possibly Colorado/17th St/SMC Station) is being built on the former site of Sunset Station in the Pico District. Pico feels rather different from the rest of Santa Monica. Despite the aparent shadiness of the area, there are several attractions just a few blocks away. Nearby restaurants include Fred Deni’s Back On Broadway, Bagel Nosh Deli, The Buffalo Club, California Shabu Shabu, DK’s Donuts & Bakery, Port Royal Café, another Taco’s Por Favor, Tulip Café, and Bob Dylan‘s charming 18th Street Coffee House (with gymnasium and boxing ring). There’s also an ethnic market, the Continental Shop, which offers all sorts of exotic British groceries, radio dramas, soaps, etc.
4TH STREET/COLORADO STATION
The planned western terminus for the Expo Line is at 4th Street and Colorado (where there was a Sears until 2010) in Downtown Santa Monica. Efforts are underway to re-designate the station “Downtown Santa Monica.” The original station, built in 1875, was simply named “Santa Monica.” The stop will be near the Third Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Shopping Center, Santa Monica High School, the Civic Auditorium, and most excitingly, half a mile from the shores that are calling me.
There are at least a couple of live performance venues nearby, including Harvelle’s Blues Club and M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater. Nearby dining establishments include Barney’s Beanery, Blue Plate Oysterette, Border Grill, Bungalow, Chez Jay, Copa D’Oro, Fresh Brothers, Fritto Misto, JiRaffe, Jinky’s Cafe, Locanda del Lago, Mercado, Musha, Ninjin, The Penthouse, Planet Raw, Real Food Daily, Renee’s Courtyard Café, Sake House Hikari, Sonoma Wine Garden, Sugarfish, Swingers, Tar and Roses, Umami Burger, The Yard, Warszawa, West 4th & Jane, and Wokano. Most of those are on the swanky side, and my preferred alternatives in the neighborhood are the English pubs — The Britannia and Ye Old King’s Head. I stopped by that latter and quenched my considerable thirst with a few pints of Tetley’s.
There I chatted also with a British expat airplane pilot who correctly surmised that I wasn’t a local. When the subject turned to the train, he said that he lives near Bergamot Station and is looking forward to its completion, and that he’d noticed the old Air Line whilst flying over it, comparing it to a scar on the Westside. One of his mates said that he’d once been to my neck of the woods, but that it was an odd part of town. When pressed on how exactly so, he said, “I couldn’t see the sea!” I told them I’d be back for more pints on the next train and headed home after catching the sunset.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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